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Michigan business groups oppose proposed border tax

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 16:26

By Michael Carroll

Michigan business organizations want to put the brakes on a section of the GOP tax reform plan that would tax goods imported into the country, arguing that the measure could burden import-dependent companies such as car makers.

A study released this month by Freedom Partners, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute, found that Michigan would be ground zero in terms of potential new tax burdens imposed by the proposed border adjustment tax (BAT). That tax proposal would impose a 20 percent tax on everything imported into the United States, including parts and raw materials for manufactured goods.

“Michigan – perhaps not coincidentally – is both the most sensitive state to a border adjustment tax and the state with the most auto manufacturing jobs,” says the Freedom Partners report, which found that imported goods represent 27.4 percent of Michigan’s Gross Domestic product.

That puts Michigan’s “sensitivity rank” for the border tax at No. 1 in the nation, the report said. The state has 124,500 motor vehicle manufacturing jobs on the line, according to a 2014 estimate.

“It’s going to seriously rock the boat,” Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told Watchdog.org.

Although de Rugy, who is also a syndicated columnist, supports reforming the federal corporate tax system, she expressed concern about potential BAT effects on the auto industry.

“Parts of cars made in America come from abroad,” said de Rugy, predicting that the border adjustment tax could disrupt a lot of companies that depend on imported parts for their products.

Michigan in particular will be hit hard by the tax, she said, although other parts of the Republican tax package could offset that burden somewhat.

The border adjustment tax has the support of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican. Brady and other supporters have argued that the tax would strengthen the dollar to the point of offsetting the increase in the corporate tax bills. But de Rugy said that empirical research has shown otherwise – that the strengthening of the currency would not be enough to offset the tax burden.

“This is an untested idea,” she said, expressing doubt that the currency would adjust as perfectly as supporters claim. “It is so focused on importers. The burden is on that group of producers.”

The net effect, said de Rugy, could be on millions of American consumers.

“Companies will pass on costs to consumers in the form of higher prices,” she said.

U.S. companies that export their goods tend to support the border adjustment tax, but de Rugy said that economic research indicates that they too would be affected.

“Exporters are behind it because they see it as a potential source of income growth,” she said. “But it’s not going to be the bone they’re hoping for.”

A Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA) position statement also expresses concern about the proposal. The association concludes the plan would boost costs for car manufacturers, reduce the amount of capital invested in new product development, bump up consumer prices, cut sales and possibly lead to an erosion of manufacturing jobs in the nation.

“The BAT issue does seem to bump up against larger trade issues,” MEMA spokeswoman Cindy Sebrell said in an email.

Sebrell pointed to a MEMA position statement expressing concern about possible changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“During the last four years, MEMA member companies have invested more in the U.S. than in any other NAFTA country,” the statement said. “NAFTA has been a key contributor to this investment and U.S. growth. As such, any changes to NAFTA should not risk disrupting motor vehicle supply chains.”

Both the National Retail Federation and the Michigan Retailers Association have come out in opposition to the tax.

“The BAT would be felt immediately in the pocketbooks of middle-class Americans, effectively amounting to a $1 trillion tax that would punish employers, consumers and the American economy,” the Michigan Retailers Association said in a statement this spring.

And a business coalition against the tax called Americans for Affordable Products predicts dire consequences if the tax is approved, including a 35-cent-per-gallon boost in the cost of gasoline and added new car costs of $2,500.

“The border adjustment tax will push the cost of a new car out of reach for middle-class consumers, who will already be saddled with higher costs on everyday necessities like food, clothing and medicine,” said George Sharpe Jr., general manager of The Sharpe Collection, a car dealership in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a prepared statement.

Wisconsin’s top headlines – April 18

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 10:27

President Trump’s in Wisconsin Tuesday, technology jobs are growing in the state and more headlines from around Wisconsin.

CNN: Trump to push ‘Buy American, Hire American’ policy at Wisconsin visit

President Donald Trump on Tuesday will sign an executive order directing federal agencies to implement the “Buy American, Hire American” rhetoric of his campaign.

The order looks to bolster protections for certain American-made goods and calls for a review of the H-1B visa program for skilled workers, with the goal of reforming the program, senior administration officials said.

Trump will sign the executive order during a trip Tuesday to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he will tour the headquarters of Snap-on-Tools, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer, and deliver a speech about US manufacturing.

Channel 3000: Fitchburg mayor-elect wants city to consider panhandling ordinance

When Madison put a median safety ordinance in place, it moved panhandlers down the road to neighboring cities.

The mayor-elect of Fitchburg, Jason Gonzalez, hopes his city will adopt a similar ordinance to the one Madison put in place.

Wisconsin State Journal: Tech taking larger role in Wisconsin’s economy

Agriculture, manufacturing and tourism are the holy trinity of the Wisconsin economy and may always be so, given the state’s rich traditions in all three sectors.

Technology increasingly drives each of those sectors, however, and is slowly building an impressive standing of its own in terms of the jobs and value it adds to the Wisconsin economy. A recent national report makes the case.

The 2017 “Cyberstates” report from CompTIA, the nation’s largest leading tech association, showed Wisconsin cracking the 100,000-job barrier in 2016 for the first time. The report, which draws upon a mix of public and private data, counted 101,542 state tech workers last year compared with 97,633 in 2015.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Gov. Scott Walker signs laws on unions, cannabis oil

Contractors won’t have to work with unions on taxpayer-funded building projects and parents will have an easier time getting an anti-seizure drug derived from marijuana, under legislation Gov. Scott Walker signed Monday.

The measure on labor agreements, which passed the Legislature on party-line votes, is the latest in a series of moves to roll back union power by Republican lawmakers in recent years. Walker signed the law at Amerilux International, a De Pere distributor of construction materials.

Modern Healthcare: Wisconsin Medicaid proposal includes drug tests, premiums

Wisconsin on Monday unveiled plans to overhaul Medicaid by requiring members to pay insurance premiums and undergo a drug screening to participate in the program.

The state’s Department of Health Services said it will submit a waiver request to the CMS on May 26, following public comment.

The proposal looks a lot like the one used in Indiana’s Medicaid expansion known as Healthy Indiana 2.0, which is facing renewed scrutiny following reports that the state used misleading and inaccurate information to justify an extension.

Not-so-free speech: Don’t call a cop an ‘a-hole’ in Hammond, Wisconsin

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 06:49

MADISON, Wis. – While it might not be the wisest decision, it’s generally not illegal to call a cop an asshole.  It’s one of those First Amendment things.

PRICE OF SPEECH? Hammond, Wis., resident Tony Endres found himself in a legal battle over what is protected speech and what is disorderly conduct.

But perhaps free speech need not apply in the northwest Wisconsin village of Hammond, where resident and local government critic Tony Endres found himself in trouble with the law for exercising his First Amendment rights.

In August 2015, Endres was out for a motorcycle ride when he said he waved at a police officer in his neighborhood. The police officer brusquely turned away, Endres said. Offended, Endres shouted out the offensive moniker.

“I came back that evening and another officer on duty at the time pulled into my driveway. He told me there was a complaint filed against me and I was going to be charged with disorderly conduct because of my statement. I said I didn’t do anything wrong,” Endres said.

Nothing seemed to come of the incident at the time.

Weeks later, Endres received a personal advertisement letter from an enterprising local attorney asking whether Endres would like legal representation. For what? Endres was confused. The attorney in a review of online court records had discovered that Endres had been charged. But Endres said he was never served, either in person or by letter.

To Endres, the charge was retaliatory.

He had long been an outspoken critic of Hammond Police Chief Rick Coltrain, at one point accusing the law enforcement official of fraud. Endres provided documents and photographic evidence to support his allegation that Coltrain’s car was parked in front of his home while the chief’s time cards noted that he was on the clock and on the job. Endres also obtained phone records through an open records request that showed Coltrain placing a call from his cabin in Siren while his time cards said he was on the job.

In a decision that involved a recusal by one of Coltrain’s allies, the Hammond Police and Review Board cleared the chief of any wrong-doing. Endres said it was small-town cronyism at its worst. Coltrain was “stealing money from the taxpayers,” Endres testified at the board meeting.

His citizen activism did not play well with local law enforcement and the pro-chief members of the Hammond Village Board.

In closed session, a board member threatened Endres, according to the resident.

“He said he’d shoot me in the head, and I’d be in a body bag,” Endres said. A fellow board member resigned over the incident. Endres filed a complaint with the district attorney’s office, but the DA did not file any charges.

Village Board President Tony Bibeau did not return a request for comment. The chief said he needed to consult the village attorney before responding.

Dan Orr, the police officer who filed the original complaint against Endres, claimed that he was “afraid for the safety of his family because of the actions of Tony Endres.” Orr, who previously worked on the Hammond police force but was employed with an area law enforcement agency at the time, noted Endres’ “hateful posts” on his Facebook site and that he carries a concealed gun. Endres’ Facebook posts are highly critical of police and local government officials, like so many other social media sites. And Wisconsin, like every other state, has a concealed carry law.

Endres said he had to go to court over a half dozen times in fighting the disorderly conduct charge. At the final appearance the judge asked him if he wanted to say anything to the court.

“I said, ‘I haven’t broken any laws. It’s not illegal to swear in public.’ The (assistant) DA interrupts and says, ‘That’s not for a judge to decide, that’s for a jury,’” Endres said.

Frustrated and feeling like he would receive no justice in a provincial place controlled by corrupt government officials and their law enforcement allies, Endres said he was tired of the whole mess. He gave up his free speech fight and paid the $250 fine, entering a no-contest plea.

“They were dragging it out and dragging it out,” he said. “The assistant DA insisted on taking it to trial.”

“They beat me down, I admit it,” he said. “I didn’t want to take the chance of going to trial with of all the corruption all the way through the county.”

Instead, Endres fought back at the polls. He ran for village board trustee in this month’s election. He lost.

But the citizen activist hasn’t quieted his campaign against what he claims is ongoing bad behavior by small town government leaders.

“I want to expose their behavior,” Endres said. “I want people to know what’s going on in our local government. …People need to watch the police. Don’t be afraid of the police or the government. They serve us, not the other way around.”

Florida cities closer to banning the bag

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 05:47

With last year’s styrofoam ban upheld by a Miami-Dade judge, the city of Coral Gables, south Florida’s “City Beautiful,” is stepping into the eco-regulation fray with another initiative. This time, to “ban the bag.”

At a March 14 meeting, the Coral Gables City Council gave initial approval to an ordinance prohibiting plastic bags being used by retailers or at special events – with a few exceptions.  A final vote, which would make the ban official, is expected on May 8.

Coral Gables would be the first city in Florida with a plastic bag ban.

“Coral Gables has strict zoning laws of which you wouldn’t believe the minutiae and nitpicking,” according to WLRN. “If something is ‘decayed’ in Coral Gables, even lushly, you risk getting beaten to death with a perfectly manicured palmetto branch that can only be removed Thursdays at 4:00 a.m. by the mayor’s cousin.”

And if the city does enact the bag ban, it would also be operating in defiance of existing state regulations –  but perhaps not for long.

Two bills in the state legislature are poised to allow cities across Florida to legally join Coral Gables in this popular regulation.

Ban on the ban

In 2008, Florida lawmakers passed legislation that prohibited cities and municipalities from instituting retail bag bans until such time as the Department of Environmental Protection could make recommendations on the practice. The DEP’s Retail Bags Report came out in 2010.

PROOF IN THE PUDDING: Environmental groups push bag bans as a necessary planet-saving step. But do they work?

State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has been introducing bills for several years to allow bag ban programs in the state.

The third consecutive iteration, this year’s HB 93, would allow coastal or otherwise water-adjacent municipalities of less than 100,000 residents to initiate a pilot program banning plastic bags. The accompanying Senate bill, SB 162, has made it through its first committee stop.

If enacted, the man-made island of Miami Beach, population 92,312 according to the latest available Census estimates, would be allowed to begin a bag ban trial program. On the other side of Biscayne Bay, the city of Miami, with its 2,712,945 residents, would not.

Richardson was not available for comment. But his legislative assistant, Luis Callejas, told Watchdog that this was the result of legislative negotiations to advance the bill.

“Initially, it was for any city in the state,” said Callejas.  “[Our goal is] just to make sure that interest groups know that this is a big concern for Miami Beach and coastal communities in general.”

Callejas said that the larger goal of this legislation was simply to get these environmental issues more attention in the legislature, but that the Florida Retail Federation had successfully blocked previous bag ban bills from advancing in the House.

The Florida Retail Federation had not responded to Watchdog’s requests for comment at the time of publication, but FRF spokesman James Miller told the TC Palm that the ban hurts the “ability of each retailer to respond to the demands of its customers,” particularly when navigating different regulations in different municipalities.

“Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, and retailers have embraced their role in recycling these materials,” he said, adding that there is no perfect environmental solution.

A little less conversation

At the state legislature, the bag ban talk might be more for show.

But for Coral Gables, the activity on the ban is real.

If Coral Gables does pass the ban in defiance of existing state law, it can expect to be sued by the state.

Marilu Flores, vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Miami chapter, told Watchdog that they have offered the city legal assistance in the event of a suit.

“What’s happening in Coral Gables is very interesting because it’s putting pressure in Tallahassee that this is what people want,” she said, adding that Surfrider has drummed up 40 letters of support from different Florida communities interested in their own bag bans.

Callejas also said the Surfrider Foundation has been instrumental in crafting the language of the bill and pushing the legislative agenda.

Surfrider’s involvement in the Florida issue is longstanding. It has been active in pushing legislation in the past few years and tried to thwart the initial legislative bag ban pre-emption.

Flores said she was hopeful. “This year, we’ve seen some movement that haven’t seen in years past.”

She added that Florida was uniquely situated to benefit from a ban, and that aside from all of the obvious wildlife and ecological pollution problems, plastic bag pollution is a “huge financial disruptor as well.”

Miami Beach found that loose plastic bags interfered with the city’s floodgate mechanisms and worsened flooding problems, she said.

Surfrider is one of the most visible advocates behind a nationwide epidemic of bag bans.

Florida alone has eleven Surfrider chapters, with many more across the country, all of which coordinate with the organization’s Malibu headquarters.

Surfrider bills itself as a community of everyday people who are the “champions of surf and sand.”

However, investigations into the national organization suggest that Surfrider sometimes skirts the laws that govern not-for-profit entities.

Solving the wrong problem

In addition to questions about the organizational integrity of the bag ban’s loudest advocate, the movement’s claim to scientific integrity and environmental dedication is undermined in another way: the empirical results of places that have already tried the ban.

“Plastic bag bans haven’t been transformative anywhere else. This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the free-market Reason Foundation.

CLEAN WATER:  Reason’s Adrian Moore says that banning plastic bags is not an effective way of getting at the real problem: littering.

He told Watchdog that plastic bag bans do not have a significant impact on litter reduction. Reusable plastic bags make up only 1 percent of litter found in a typical city, and even less than that of the solid waste in landfills.

Moore added that the heavy duty reusable bags that people turn to when grocery plastic bags are banned are not necessarily better for the environment, given the greater resource and processing demands of making them.

He called bag bans a kind of “cop-out,” allowing cities to avoid asking the real questions about why we have problems with litter (including plastic bags) getting into the environment, be it lack of garbage cans, insufficient public education, or not cleaning up after events, for starters.

Moreover, Moore said that a lot of these cities that pass bag bans are those with environmentally conscious, better-off residents. In other words, places where people are already likely to be mindful of reusing bags and stewarding the environment – and where the impact of bag bans is particularly negligible.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states proposed legislation regulating the retail use of plastic bags in 2015 and 2016. The only laws that passed were in Arizona, Idaho and Missouri, all of which pre-empted city bans.

California has the oldest statewide ban, passed in 2014. Hawaii effectively has one as well, given that all of its largest cities have passed bag ban ordinances.

At the city level, there has been even more activity, with cities like Austin, Chicago and Seattle passing legislation regarding the use of plastic bags. Others, such as Boulder, Colorado; Brownsville, Texas; and Washington, D.C., have instituted bag fees.

The results are underwhelming.  In Washington, the evidence of definitive success isn’t there. The bag tax money has been used for purposes like school field trips and personnel costs, as opposed to the environment initiatives that it was earmarked for.

In Brownsville, the legality of local bag fees has come under question.

But maybe Florida would be different?

“No,” said Moore.  “There’s nothing unique about Florida.”

“If you have a litter problem, you have a litter problem, not a plastic bag problem.”

Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog. 

Plaintiffs say Act 39 suit dismissal a victory for religious liberty

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 13:58

VICTORY?: Doctors are claiming victory despite the dismissal of their religious liberty suit against Act 39, Vermont’s physician-assisted suicide law. The court ruled that the law was not a real threat to their religious or moral convictions.

 

Despite claims of victory from physician-assisted suicide advocates, plaintiffs in a recently dismissed District Court case say the judge’s decision ultimately was a win for moral and religious liberty.

“They are cautiously optimistic, and thankful the court recognized their right to pro-life [medical practice],” Steven Aden, the plaintiffs’ legal counsel, told Watchdog.

Last July, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the national Christian Medical and Dental Associations filed suit against Vermont, claiming the state’s physician-assisted suicide law, Act 39, violated their moral and ethical beliefs. The groups enjoined the court to prohibit the state from taking disciplinary action if a physician refused to counsel a patient about the option to commit suicide.

Last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont dismissed the case, reasoning that the law was not a real threat to the plaintiffs religious liberty.

The judge maintained that, after litigation, all parties agreed on at least one option that would not violate religious liberty or be a barrier to a patient’s right to medical information: refer patients who inquire about doctor-assisted suicide to another physician or to a website.

“Without some likelihood of injury, there is no real controversy between the parties sufficient to meet the constitutional requirement [to continue the case],” Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford wrote in his decision.

During the proceedings, the court took testimony from representatives of the Attorney General’s office, who clarified how the state views religious protection under Act 39.

“Act 39 does not give patients a ‘right’ to ‘request’ and ‘expect and receive’ aid in dying from their health care provider, but, instead, expressly provides that health care providers and facilities are not obligated to participate in the Act 39 process,” the written testimony stated.

Aden says the clarification of the state’s position is an important result of the case.

“Before the lawsuit was filed, the state was rather coy about under what circumstances clients are required to counsel [patients about assisted suicide]. We’re thankful that through this litigation, the state’s position is much closer to respecting plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

While the physicians who brought the suit are optimistic, assisted suicide advocates are taking the ruling at face value.

“Justice has prevailed in this case for terminally ill Vermonters,” Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont, stated in a press release.

“This ruling reinforces the professional obligation of doctors to have full and open discussions, respond substantively to all questions, and enable patients to make fully informed decisions.”

It remains to be seen whether the state will abide by its protective stance or transition toward the agenda of assisted suicide advocates.

Aden said his clients plan to pursue other avenues to ensure protection of their ethical rights. Some have advocated that legislators introduce a bill that fully clarifies religious protection under Act 39.

If prosecution does arise, said Aden, his clients have stated they would leave the state rather than violate their religious or moral beliefs.

This could be significant for Vermont, which is facing a shortage of primary care doctors. Vermont has an unsustainable ratio of one primary care doctor for every 1,121 patients.

Emma Lamberton is Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter. Contact her at elamberton@watchdog.org or @EmmaBeth9. 

UW-Platteville whistleblower professor fighting on

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 13:14

MADISON, Wis. — On the verge of losing the job she loves, embattled Criminal Justice Professor Sabina Burton is not going gently into that good night.

BURTON BATTLES ON: UW-Platteville Professor Sabina Burton says she will continue to fight against what she claims is a culture of corruption among university administration.

Burton is filing an amended federal complaint charging that University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators violated her constitutionally protected rights, including her First Amendment right to criticize the administration.

Burton and her attorney also charge that UW-P Chancellor Dennis Shields failed to include appeals procedure language in his letter earlier this month calling for Burton’s dismissal from her tenured position. Shields advised Burton that he had “found just cause” to fire the professor following an investigation into complaints brought by one of the administrators Burton has accused of discrimination and retaliation.

Burton said she plans to refute Shields’ findings at a faculty senate committee hearing, and will appeal the dismissal to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

She said she holds out little hope that she will receive justice from what she describes as Shields’ “kangaroo court,” but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has granted her the right to sue administrators. Burton has lost twice in federal court on previous charges, but she said she received inadequate representation and that Shields’ move to terminate her position only underscores her charges.

As first reported in Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Troubled Campus, Burton alleges she has been the victim of harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the hands of UW-P administrators since October 2012, when Burton stood up for a female student who said she had been sexually harassed by a male professor in the Criminal Justice Department.

Burton claims administrators took away a grant and committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career after she spoke out about the handling of the sexual harassment complaint in Oct. 2012. She defended a female student who felt sexually harassed by a male professor. A university committee found in favor of Burton and said that administrators had “slut shamed” the student.

Burton alleges she was physically threatened by the former acting chairman of the department, and also claims she was defamed by an instructor.

She sued the university and some of its administrators in 2015 in federal court, eventually losing the case.

In January, Shields ordered Burton to clean out her office and prohibited her from being on campus while the investigation into complaints against the professor continued.

The chancellor at the time advised Burton that he was “initiating the dismissal process” based on a complaint filed by two administrators. Shields informed Burton that if the allegations were true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”

Among other offenses, the administrators’ complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.”

Burton denies the allegations and has provided evidence refuting accusations regarding internal email communications, for instance. Court depositions and other communications also show administrators making conflicting statements.

In his dismissal letter, Shields claims an investigation conducted by UW System administrator Petra Roter found that Burton engaged in “disrespectful, harassing and intimidating behavior” toward her colleagues “in an attempt to undermine them professionally and damage their reputation and careers.”

Roter last month completed a report on her findings. The investigation included interviews with Burton and her accusers, who claim it was Burton who has caused a hostile environment in the department.

Overall, Roter’s report suggests the Criminal Justice Department has been in disarray for some time.

“Everyone interviewed agreed that Dr. Burton is an excellent teacher,” the report states.

UW-Platteville officials have said they cannot comment on personnel issues.

Burton said she has appealed to everyone from state Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, to Gov. Scott Walker. She received lots of promises from numerous pols to look into her case, but none have come to her aid.

Tranel’s office did not return Wisconsin Watchdog’s call seeking comment.

In a lengthy statement to Wisconsin Watchdog, Burton, who was born and raised in Germany, said corruption has made the U.S. Constitution a mockery:

“From everything I have learned about the U.S. of America it should be absolutely un-American to accept corruption. You look at why people emigrated from Europe to America, the Constitution the forefathers gave us, the strong individual rights protection. Having worked in law enforcement I understand that people break the law. I understand that corruption will always exist, what I don’t understand is why people don’t seem to be more invested in fighting government corruption. UW-Platteville is a public institution. The sheer apathy on the side of employees and politicians in this state is unprecedented to me. After WWII the United States taught Germans how to recognize and resist government corruption. The German constitution bears resemblance to the American Constitution and includes strong individual rights protection. I am a product of post WWII education. Perhaps that is why I can’t just look the other way, take the easy way, drink the Kool-Aid. They have offered me the Kool-Aid but the price was too high. I wasn’t willing to give up my integrity and forego the safety of our students for the carrot they offered.”

House Democrats squash Scott’s executive order merging liquor and lottery agencies

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 12:50

Gov. Phil Scott’s plan to merge the state liquor and lottery agencies sounded like a good way to streamline government, but on Wednesday House Democrats said no.

In an 82-63 vote that fell largely along party lines, the Democrat-led House voted down Scott’s January executive order to merge the Department of Liquor Control and the Vermont Lottery Commission.

REPEAL: Rebecca Kelley, Gov. Phil Scott’s communications director, suggested that yesterday’s vote to rescind her boss’s executive order to merge the Department of Liquor Control and the Vermont Lottery Commission was a missed opportunity to make state government more efficient.

Typically, executive orders can be rescinded by a governor if they are either no longer useful, no longer effective or have been superseded by legislative enactment. However, the Scott administration has expressed concern about what appears to a constitutional grey area — where one legislative chamber has the authority to rescind an executive order.

The Scott administration reacted swiftly following the vote to rescind.

“It is inexplicable that the House majority would not have supported this merger – something they have discussed for a decade and that has strong support in the Senate,” Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s communications director, said in a statement. “It appears they have put politics ahead of the opportunity to modernize government for the people we serve.”

Kelley expressed regret about the lost benefits a merger would have offered. She noted that the merger would have created better service to Vermont retailers and made better use of taxpayer dollars. “This simple structural change would create a department that was still among the smallest in all of state government with fewer than 80 employees,” according to Kelley.

House Majority Leader Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, implied that Scott’s order to merge Liquor and Lottery was a daunting task. “(A merger is a) huge policy change and we need to get it right.”

Kelley noted that the governor’s office is interested in “credible legal questions” regarding the authority of a single chamber of the Legislature to rescind the governor’s order. “It is certainly something we will consider further,” Kelley said in the statement.

Louis Varricchio is Vermont bureau chief for Vermont Watchdog.org.

Higher spending on shrinking Jackson public schools belies complaints about charters

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 06:59

In its lawsuit that could cut off funding for public charter schools, the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the redirection of state and local property tax to charter schools “unconstitutional spending.”

But how much spending are we talking about? There are three charter schools in Mississippi and all operate in the Jackson Public Schools district, which was rated an F district in the latest district grades by the Mississippi Department of Education.

The lawsuit filed in Hinds County Chancery Court says that $1.85 million in state and local tax revenue redirected to charter schools by the JPS could’ve paid for 42 teacher salaries, 18 new school buses and two guidance counselors.

SHRINKING: The number of students enrolled in the Jackson Public Schools district is at a 12-year low for the 2016-2017 school year, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education.

JPS enrollment, as shown above, has been largely declining since 2005. According to data from the Mississippi Department of Education, JPS enrollment is at a 12-year low this school year, with 26,948 students.

ASCENDING: Despite declining enrollment, the Jackson Public Schools district is receiving more money from state and local taxpayers.

Despite the declining enrollment, the JPS has seen an uptick in its revenue since Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Charter School Act in 2013. According to a brief filed in the case, JPS received more than $192 million combined in state and local tax revenue in 2013. In 2016, that figure is up to more than $204 million.

UPWARD: Since the Charter School Act was passed in 2013, the per-pupil spending in the Jackson Public Schools district has increased 13 percent.

With declining enrollment and increasing revenue, per pupil spending has increased considerably since the first charter school opened in Jackson.

The higher revenues and lower enrollment numbers mirror trends statewide. In 2013, 493,000 students were enrolled in Mississippi public schools. Now, there are 482,000 enrolled. The Legislature appropriated more than $2.2 billion for K-12 education in 2013 and that number is now up to $2.5 billion.

SMALL SLICE: Charter schools — which are public schools — will spend $4 million of Jackson Public Schools’ more than $208 million budget in 2017, according to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The contribution made by JPS in tax revenues to the three charter schools is minuscule, with the figure estimated by the SPLC to be $4 million. Against a JPS budget of $208 million, that represents a 1.92 percent of total spending.

Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas set a pair of deadlines for the attorneys in the case after 90 minutes of oral arguments on April 3, with May 10 for proposed findings of fact and June 21 for any required rebuttals.

Commentary: Certificate of need laws don’t help with charity care

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 05:57

Many states have a hospital regulatory regime called certificate of need, in which new health care facilities must apply for permission from the government for their existence and “prove” that the existing health care service providers in the geographic region can’t service the existing population. But researchers say that certificate of need regulations lead to artificially constricted supply and a pseudo-monopoly – and that some of the justifications for these regulations fall short.

CON-TRARY: Inova imposed restrictions on charity care after raising rates on paying customers and using charity care as a justification for the increase.

Virginia has some of the strictest certificate of need (CON) laws in the country, justified by incumbent providers claiming that their regulatory advantages allow them to serve customers better, as well as provide charity care to the least vulnerable. But some providers in Virginia have recently instituted stricter regulations on who qualifies for charity care within their service areas, while at the same time raising prices because, they argue, they have to absorb the costs of the charity care.

“The primary justification for certificate of need laws is that it allows incumbent hospitals and providers to cover the cost of charity care,” Christopher Koopman, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told Watchdog.org. “The idea being that giving them a monopoly or a quasi-monopoly gives them the ability to charge paying customers more, and then use those excess profits to cover the cost of nonpayer care.”

In Fairfax County, incumbent provider Inova made changes to its charity care policies without approval from the Health Care Advisory Board – approval that has been required under agreements between the incumbent provider and the board. Inova recently put charity care eligibility restrictions in place based on geography and residency.

As the HCAB meeting summary says:

“[Inova representative] Mr. Magenheimer acknowledged that the changes Inova proposed to its charity care policy should have been presented to the Board of Supervisors for approval, per the requirements of Inova’s lease agreement with the County. … It was pointed out that the lease agreement does not allow for eligibility determinations based on nationality. Residency or citizenship requirements are questionable under those parameters.”

Regardless of the “questionable” distinction, Inova pushed forward with the residency restrictions for charity care. Representatives for the HCAB’s chair told Watchdog.org that the legality of this was unclear.

Over the past two years, Inova relaxed its income requirements for charity care — to up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line — then used that expansion as justification to raise prices for paying customers. Then, at the end of 2016, Inova said that its expanded income eligibility was more expensive than previously thought — requiring yet another price hike, and the need to “re-evaluate” the income expansion.

So the incumbent health provider, granted a quasi-monopoly by Virginia’s certificate of need laws, was able to raise prices by citing its expansion of charity care benefits, then raise prices again while citing the need to re-evaluate its charity care policies because it was too expensive.

“There is no relationship between the presence of a certificate of need law and any increase in charity care,” Koopman told Watchdog.org. “Certificate of need laws are a very clunky, awkward, inefficient attempt to cover the cost of nonpayer care.”

As Watchdog.org has reported in the past, certificate of need laws have been found to be anticompetitive and result in worse health outcomes for patients. From Florida to Vermont to other states with CON laws, studies show that the regulations decrease Americans’ access to health services, including hospitals, private practices and emergency rooms. CON laws have shown little ability to decrease costs of services or improve quality, either. And they give political power to incumbent health providers – particularly large chains – that can be used to shut down the potential expansion of competitors.

Probes into troubled Social Security offices crawling along

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 00:40
Part 61 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – Federal investigators are “making progress” on separate probes into scandal-plagued Social Security Administration offices, sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog.

SSA’s Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel for months have been investigating allegations of misconduct at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, or ODAR, facilities in Madison and Milwaukee. ODAR reviews Social Security disability claims, ultimately deciding whether benefits will be awarded or denied.

MOVING ALONG: Sources say investigations into allegations of misconduct at Wisconsin Social Security offices are moving forward.

“The OSC is really ready to ramp things up,” a source with knowledge of the probes told Wisconsin Watchdog. “They are making progress. It’s like an Army crawl instead of a run, but we are told they are making progress.”

Meanwhile, OIG investigators were at the Milwaukee ODAR office last month looking into an alleged breach of an employee’s private records, according to the employee.

In November, the employee, an SSA whistleblower who has asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, filed a complaint alleging her Veterans Affairs records had been compromised and made public to fellow ODAR employees.

The source, who had previously brought to light other allegations of misconduct inside the Wisconsin ODAR office, said another employee in the office obtained her VA records – including military service, medical and other personal information.

She said the co-worker got the records from a friend who works in the VA system.

“He was bragging about it and discussing it with a group of (staff members),” said the employee, who learned of the alleged records breach from sources close to the situation.

The co-worker allegedly was upset that the whistleblower was quoted in Watchdog.org’s investigative series about widespread allegations of misconduct and retaliation at ODAR facilities. She said the co-worker relayed information that he could have known only by reading the personal file.

OIG agents interviewed witnesses on March 14 and told the whistleblower that the VA now knows who accessed her records.

“They said this guy involuntarily resigned,” she said. “They told me the VA knows, that’s why they are paying for 12 months of credit bureau monitoring.”

The whistleblower has requested documents related to the matter from the VA. She was told the records should be made available by next week. She also filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information on the OIG investigation.

In the Milwaukee office, whistleblower Ron Klym remains out of work, waiting for an appeals process that is moving at a snail’s pace.

The long-time SSA employee, who was fired after going public with accusations of agency misconduct and long case delays, said his arbitration hearing was postponed again on Wednesday – the fourth month in a row. He asserts the usual players in what whistleblowers have described as a corrupt SSA Region 5 headquarters continue to retaliate against him for taking his allegations to federal authorities.

An OIG investigation into the Madison office found managers there committed time and attendance abuses, engaged in questionable hiring practices, and failed to provide proper oversight.

The Inspector General’s fact sheet, obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog earlier this year, notes managers held whistleblowers to significantly stricter standards than other staff. Yet, the lengthy investigation seems to have found no acts of retaliation committed against the ODAR employees who brought widespread allegations of corruption – including fraud, nepotism, harassment and retaliation – to light.

“Most of the issues with the Madison HO (Hearing Office) identified through this investigation were attributable to poor management, inconsistent application of agency policies and lack of critical management oversight,” the report states.

The OIG fact sheet, however, notes that after group supervisor Deborah Holland disclosed the allegations to multiple sources, SSA took “personnel actions that adversely affected her, including the relocation of her duty station and reassignment of her duties.”

The report also noted hiring concerns.

“Hiring decisions in the Madison (Hearing Office) were largely unchecked by ODAR management, leaving the hearing office director free to populate the office with friends and family members of current employees, increasing perceptions of favoritism and diminishing employee morale and focus on the agency’s public service mission,” the fact sheet stated. “Hiring practices in the Madison HO, which often included the manipulation of vacancy announcements to achieve a desired end, attempted to dissuade applicants from pursuing certain positions, which ran afoul of protections intended for all candidates for federal positions.”

A Region 5 spokesman repeatedly has said the agency cannot discuss personnel matters.

One whistleblower, noting that the OIG can only make recommendations to Social Security Administration leadership, said she doesn’t believe anyone will ever be held accountable.

“I lost faith a long time ago,” the federal employee said.

Commentary: Rolling Stone settles first lawsuit over debunked campus sexual assault story

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 15:05

RAPE HOAX: A University of Virginia fraternity was protested and vandalized following a false rape accusation published by Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone has settled with former University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo over the magazine’s portrayal of her in a since-debunked story about a gang-rape that never happened.

The original article published on Nov. 20, 2014, depicted a horrific story: A young college freshman goes on a date with a handsome fraternity member, who takes her back to a party at the fraternity house and lures her upstairs where half a dozen other members are waiting to gang rape her. After hours of being raped, she escapes and calls her friends, who, rather than taking her to the hospital, tell her to be quiet or else they’ll all be social outcasts. When the woman told her story to a university administrator, Eramo, she was brushed off, allegedly being told that “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”

Except none of it was true. There was no party at the fraternity house. Her friends weren’t interviewed for the story, and when they finally were, insisted that not only did they beg the young woman to go to the hospital, two of them stayed with her that night to comfort her. And, most damaging at all, the fraternity member with whom she had a date didn’t even exist; the woman made him up in order to make another man (whom she called the night of the alleged incident) jealous.

Eramo sued Rolling Stone in May 2015 for the way she was portrayed. She claimed she never said anything about U.Va. potentially being labeled a rape school, and was able to demonstrate that Rolling Stone altered a photo of her to make her look callous. The original photo was of Eramo in a classroom, holding a pen. The doctored photo made her skin blue, altered her eyes and mouth and removed the pen to make it look like she was smiling and giving a “thumbs up” as a girl cried in her office.

The defamation suit eventually went to trial, where it was revealed that Rolling Stone edited out information favorable to Eramo and that the author of the article – Sabrina Rubin Erdely – had an extreme bias against fraternities before she started writing. When publisher Jann Wenner took the stand, he said he regretted fully retracting the article and claimed he had “suffered as much as” Eramo had. Wenner, whose net worth is $700 million and who is still the publisher of Rolling Stone, claimed he suffered as much as a college dean who tried to help rape victims and lost her job while being maligned in the press, through no fault of her own.

A jury found Wenner, the magazine and Erdely liable on three counts of defamation, and were ordered to pay Eramo more than $3 million. The details of the settlement were not revealed, but Rolling Stone called it an “amicable resolution” in a statement provided to the Washington Post.

Libby Locke, an attorney for Eramo, released a statement saying she and her client were “delighted that this dispute is now behind us, as it allows Nicole to move on and focus on doing what she does best, which is supporting victims of sexual assault.”

Erdely eventually lost her job at Rolling Stone (though that didn’t happen until long after the story unraveled and the lawsuits began to roll in). Like Wenner, in court documents she expressed remorse while claiming victimhood.

“This experience has been devastating to me, both professionally and personally. Never in my 20-plus years as a reporter have I had a story or a source fall apart on me after publication,” Erdely said. “After feeling so sure about the article, and believing so strongly that it would help spur change on college campuses, losing faith in the credibility of one of my major sources post-publication took me entirely by surprise. I was stunned and shaken by the experience, and remain so to this day.”

Erdely has actually had multiple stories fall apart after publication, though none have received the level of attention that the rape hoax article did. She won a college journalism award for a story about folk singer Michelle Shocked that turned out to be false. Erdely was supposed to attend a press conference with Shocked, but missed it and wrote her article by cobbling together information from other media outlets. During the trial, Eramo’s lawyers played footage of Erdely acknowledging that “just about everything in the story was wrong.”

Maybe Erdely was talking about her career as a professional reporter. She’s wrong there, as well. It actually appears as though Erdely has rarely, if ever, corroborated a story. Two years before the rape hoax, Erdely wrote an article titled “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer.” Much like the U.Va. story, Erdely tells a horrifying story, but provides little in the way of corroborating details.

Leon Wolf, then with RedState, looked into the story after the campus sexual assault hoax, and found numerous errors that suggest that rape was a fake as well. The accuser in that story didn’t say she was raped, as Erdely’s article claimed. The potential sexual assault was brought up by a member of the Navy command while interrogating the officer after she was arrested for DUI. Sexual assault wasn’t mentioned in the police report that night, nor was any physical evidence ever found to corroborate the claim.

There was contact DNA found on the upper back of the petty officer’s underwear, which Erdely described as “proof that something happened,” though such contact DNA could have come from anyone in a number of non-rape circumstances, such as an officer picking up the woman’s clothes after she took them off in jail.

Erdely also published a story about a young man who claimed to be raped by a Catholic priest, but that story, too, appears to be a hoax. Ralph Cipriano, a former L.A. Times and Philadelphia Inquirer reported, chronicled the inaccuracies in the accuser’s claims. Essentially, a young drug addict claimed to be raped by priests and a teacher while he was an altar boy. His story constantly changed, but he was able to convince a grand jury to indict four men, who ended up in jail.

In each instance, Erdely appears to have done no actual journalism and relied on accusations and outside opinions.

Rolling Stone and the author still face a lawsuit from the fraternity maligned in the article, whose U.Va. house was vandalized and protested after the article was published. The woman who made the false accusation was recently ordered to comply with that lawsuit.

Iraq war veteran burned by ‘very frustrating process’ at VA

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 12:17
Part 48 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – Kris Ottman’s job came with the kind of stress that few ever experience.

DENIED: Iraq War veteran Kris Ottman says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denied his disability claim despite his painful digestive disorder that the VA acknowledges was service-related.

He lived a ticking time bomb existence – literally – in a place that gave hell a run for its money.

Ottman joined the Army in 2004 as an explosive ordinance deployment specialist – part of the Army’s bomb squad. He worked as an ammunition specialist during two tours of duty in the Iraq War.

The 31-year-old Wausau resident saw more than he wants to say: mortar attacks, the strain of cleaning out rigged Humvees following improvised explosive device explosions. He pulled out bombs and he dragged out bodies. When he wasn’t dealing with explosives he and his fellow soldiers were taking enemy fire in unarmed vehicles.

But the war wasn’t over for Ottman when he left Iraq in 2009. His fight for the care his country promised him in exchange for those stressful days of service was just beginning.

VA heartburn

During his first tour in 2005-06, the specialist developed problems with his digestive system. In short, his esophagus stopped working. He said he dropped 30 pounds during deployment.

“Imagine the worst heartburn, but 10 times worse,” he said. Ottman couldn’t keep water down, let alone food.  No one could figure out what was causing it.

He eventually came back to the United States to have laparoscopic surgery. Doctors wrapped a portion of his stomach lining around the bottom of the esophagus to support the sphincter muscle. The idea is to prevent corrosive stomach acid from invading the esophagus.

It worked. For a while.

But within 18 months, Ottman said, his esophagus got so tight he was having trouble swallowing. The pain is debilitating, he said.

“I end up dry heaving and the suture eventually starts to wear down. Then I start coughing up blood,” the veteran said.

The remedy has been an elongated balloon to stretch out the esophagus. The procedures uses a scope to determine whether there has been any tearing. Usually there is evidence of erosion.

Ottman said he has had the dilation done three times. He was under the impression that the surgery was not covered by the Army when he left active service in 2010.

The U.S. Department Veterans Affairs acknowledged Ottman’s esophageal problems were service-related. Yet, the agency gave Ottman a zero on the VA disability rating chart, which means the VA isn’t going to provide compensation for the disability that Ottman asserts is clearly the result of his war service. The ruling was contrary to a private health care provider’s finding.

Ottman previously had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the VA rated his PTSD as a service-related injury, at 30 percent on its disability chart. The veteran is entitled to monthly compensation.

The stress, he said, was what destroyed his esophagus, during and after the war. Ottman said he had never experienced anything like it before he was sent to Iraq, and there was no family history of the disorder.

“The reason why my digestive system started to fail was due to the stress and diet changes of being deployed and the things I was dealing with overseas. That’s how my body chose to deal with it,” he said. “It was related to my deployment, like my PTSD is. The fact the VA sees it as zero percent, well, it’s ‘Sorry, sucks to be you.’ That’s how I perceive their view of it. And it’s partly because they don’t want to pay out. They don’t want to admit fault.”

Ottman said he stands to receive approximately $40,000 in back pay under a 30 percent disability rating schedule.

DELAYED: Ottman says he has found nothing has changed in the VA health care system when it comes to long wait times and the delivery of medical services.

According to the VA, “Compensation may also be paid for post-service disabilities that are considered related or secondary to disabilities occurring in service and for disabilities presumed to be related to circumstances of military service, even though they may arise after service. Generally, the degrees of disability specified are also designed to compensate for considerable loss of working time from exacerbations or illnesses.”

‘Frustrating process’

Last year, Ottman said things got so bad he wasn’t able to eat. He was losing weight again. A service representative in Portage County advised him to file for an appeal because it “seems odd that they gave you a zero-percent rating.”

He met with a private provider. Ottman was told what he already felt: His esophageal wrap was too tight again. He went through another round of dilation again, and once more he instantly felt better. It was a mixed blessing.

Ottman said an examining physician at the Tomah VA Medical Center perfunctorily looked at his file notes and determined he was fine, which made sense: He had just had the procedure that temporarily improved his condition. The physician, Ottman said, did not take into account his medical history.

“At that point, it wasn’t bothering me. In 18 months it will be,” the veteran said.

Worse still, according to Ottman, he was never informed that he was denied disability compensation for his chronic esophageal issues. No letter. No phone call. No email. No text. But his online files note that a notification letter was sent. Ottman said he never received it. Strange, he said. He’d never missed a VA letter before.

He found out too late that he had 60 days to appeal the ruling.

“From my understanding, the only route left to me is to go back in and rebuild the case from scratch with new evidence,” Ottman said. “It’s a very frustrating process. It seems like there is so little communication and follow through on their side.  I have the proper paperwork showing moderate esophageal stricture. You look at the rating guide, it’s the same rating.”

Tomah VA spokesman Matthew Gowan said he could not speak to Ottman’s case unless he received permission from the patient. Ottman said he granted disclosure permission on Friday. Gowan on Wednesday claimed that he hadn’t received the proper signature from Ottman to “ensure that I’m protecting the veteran’s rights under HIPPA and Privacy Act every single step of the way.” Ottman said he digitally signed the form, including his Social Security number, but Gowan insisted on a “wet signature.”

Ottman said Gowan’s office instructed someone from the psychiatric department at Tomah to call him “because from the information he was given I was having an issue that needed to be addressed.” Ottman said he explained that the matter was about his disability claim and appeal and the staff member said that he was told Ottman was having “concerns with a mental health issue.”

Song remains the same

Beyond the battles over disability compensation, Ottman said he has been subjected to what so many of his veteran brethren have endured: long delays.

In one scheduling tilt-a-whirl, Ottman said he was told he would have to wait weeks just to schedule an appointment with a VA psychiatrist for the first available opening – three months later.

Despite the media coverage, public pressure and assurances from the VA that wait times are improving, Ottman said, from his experience and other veterans he knows, they are not. From initial examination to test to procedure, he said, it can take a year to move through the VA health care system.

Kevin Nicholson, a decorated veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says the song remains the same for the bloated government bureaucracy that is the VA health care system.

TROUBLES CONTINUE: Veterans tell Wisconsin Watchdog that they continue to experience problems with health services at the troubled Tomah VA Medical Center.

Nicholson, a member of the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs, worked alongside the EOD and ammunition teams under his command. He said the life-and-death pressure the bomb squad teams deal with is unimaginable to the average person. What veterans must go through to receive disability benefits is a stress that only a “gargantuan” government agency could create, he added.

“It can take several months, if not years, for them to hand down their decision,” Nicholson said, noting that a veteran needs an advocate with knowledge of the system’s intricacies in order to expedite the process. “What’s nonsensical is that’s expected. You need an outside advocate to advocate for you.”

The average wait time to evaluate a claim was 277 days in 2012, according to a Center for Investigative Reporting investigation. The VA has reported “slow but measurable progress” in reducing the backlog.

Nicholson, a Milwaukee-area conservative considering a run for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s Senate seat in next year’s election, said there is “no fixing” a VA system that is “so broken from top to bottom.”

“The thing needs to be dismantled, starting from the ground up,” he said. “More than any other federal agency that exists, this one has so many consistent and life-altering mistakes.”

The Tomah VA Medical Center has been trying to heal since early 2015, when it was first reported that the health care complex had been dubbed “Candyland” because of the opioid overprescription practices of its disgraced former chief of staff. A U.S. Senate committee report last year found the medical facility was sickened by a “culture of fear” that lead to the death of at least one veteran and retaliation against the whistleblowers who first raised red flags.

Ottman said he sees a disconnect with old promises and political priorities.

“You see all this legislation coming down about refugee cities trying to help all of these people who are not even citizens of our country, the people we fought against in some instances,” the war veteran said. “Our nation wants to take care of these people, but not us.”

He hopes his story will help shine some light on the myriad problems in the VA system.

“Even though my situation may not be the most severe, hopefully if people are going through what I have dealt with or worse, this gives them hope that there are other roads they can take,” Ottman said.

Arizona dental therapy supporters prep for next battle

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 10:31

A disappointing defeat for dental therapy in Arizona in 2016 has only strengthened the resolve of advocates looking ahead to the next legislative session.

Among them is Kristen Mizzi Angelone, a dental policy expert with the Pew Charitable Trusts, which backs dental therapy efforts across the country.

“Arizona is big state,” she told Watchdog.org. “There are huge sections of the state that don’t have dentists. There are people who have to travel hours and hours and hours just to see a dentist.”

Mizzi Angelone joined legislators and other public health advocates Tuesday to hear about a new report from the free-market Goldwater Institute on Arizona’s dental health crisis. The report says 69 percent of the state has fewer than one dental provider for every 5,000 residents. And an estimated 2.4 million of Arizona’s seven million residents live in federal Dental Professional Shortage Areas.

Pew, Goldwater and the the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona are part of a broad coalition called Dental Care for Arizona that argues dental therapy is a viable solution to the state’s dental health shortage.

RELATED: Arizona lawmakers ponder dental therapy to address shortage

Like nurse practitioners and physician assistants, dental therapists are trained and licensed to perform a limited number of the same procedures as dentists, such as filling cavities and pulling teeth. They also work under dentists’ supervision.

DENTAL THERAPY TEETH: Advocates launch new strategy to solve Arizona’s chronic dental care shortage

Practiced in 50 countries since 1920, dental therapy made its way to tribal lands in Alaska in 2004. Since then, regular dental care has reached an estimated 40,000 children and adults in 80 previously unserved areas. Before that, the best a village could hope for was once-per-year visit by a dentist who would perform triage on the worst dental problems.

Minnesota was the first of the lower 48 states to adopt licensing, education and testing in 2009. Vermont and Maine also have laws allowing dental therapy. In February, Washington Indian tribes prevailed in getting the state to approve federal funding for dental therapists on tribal lands. Oregon has a pilot program for tribal communities and several states are considering dental therapy licensing including Massachusetts, Michigan, Kansas and North Dakota.

The effort gained attention in 2015 when the Commission for Dental Accreditation (CODA) developed dental therapy standards for states and schools to use when creating their own programs. CODA is an independent arm that operates under the purview of the American Dental Association (ADA).

It’s not as if Arizonans are averse to innovative disruptions in health care. Dental tourism is thriving just across the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales and Los Algodones, which markets itself as “Molar City.” Los Algodones has around 5,500 people, and according to its website, more than 300 dental clinics that perform quality, high-tech dental work for 70 to 75 percent less than in the U.S.

“Dental therapy will not only help more people get the care they need,” Mizzi Angelone explained. “But this is really a free market, business opportunity to expand and really innovate the dental delivery system in this state.”

Politically polarizing

This new profession, however, has been a tough sell for some Arizona lawmakers..

The legislature’s “Committee of Reference,” a review panel for occupational licensing proposals, voted 8-1 in December to reject the coalition’s application. Passage would have allowed the full legislature to consider details of the new profession.

The Arizona Dental Association celebrated the committee’s vote, telling members telling members, “We live to fight another day!”

The committee’s lead opponent was state Rep. Regina Cobb, a dentist, former state Dental Association president and member of the ADA’s lobbying council.

At the hearing, Cobb harped on the quality and safety of care, and argued to coalition leader Kristin Boiline that CODA standards aren’t sufficient because they lack a national test such as that taken by dentists.

Cobb: “Is there a test that [dental therapy candidates] can take right now to prove their competency?”

Boilini: “There is in Minnesota, yes.”

Cobb: “But not a national test. And CODA is a national organization.”

Boilini told Watchdog.org that national standards don’t mean a national test, but rather a baseline for each state to tailor its own testing, licensing and education. She said state tests would use questions straight from the National Board Dental Examinations, but only questions related to the narrow scope of dental therapy.

In Arizona, that would be around 80 procedures, compared with dentists who can perform 434.

RELATED: Dental therapy defeat in Arizona raises ethical questions

The lone yes vote was from committee chair Nancy Barto, a state senator from Phoenix. In a phone interview with Watchdog, she called Cobb’s national test discussion a red herring.

“We were not deciding in that hearing what the CODA standard would be for Arizona. That is up to us as a legislature to decide,” she said. “All of that really was unfortunate that it gathered so much attention.”

Boilini agrees the hearing, held before Christmas, made it tough to clarify the finer points about dental therapy, but is confident it served a good purpose.

“This was the first opportunity for legislators to hear about dental therapy, to really talk about dental therapy and what it is. It is a complex issue and is politically polarizing,” said Boililni.

The ADA and its state chapters continue to insist the problem isn’t a shortage of dentists, just uneven distribution Their solution? Professional community outreach to help connect dentists and patients — and more Medicaid money.

Prepared to fight

Armed with more time, information and a growing need, the Dental Care for Arizona coalition is moving forward with a year-long strategy to educate all stakeholders, including the ones who are elected.

“The entire state is a shortage area,” said Barto. “When you have this information that’s starting to coalesce around that fact, it’s going to be hard to deny the need. And if [my colleagues] are aware that this could be part of a comprehensive solution to satisfying a need for low-cost dental services, they’re going to be pushing for it themselves and they’re going to be under pressure to support something like that at the legislature.”

“There is a very pro-business governor in place and a legislature that is looking for ways to innovate the current health care system,” Mizzi Angelone added. “They know that we need to do something different, that the way things have been done over the last 12 years aren’t working.”

Barto says a bill in the works would revamp the review process by broadening the committee itself and moving the hearing from December to the beginning of the legislative session in January.

“It would be quite different and there would be more participation by legislators.” said Barto, adding that she doesn’t want a repeat of last year.

“If Arizona’s legislature is seen as a stopper, that is really a negative.”

Animal rights group gives Vermont D-plus for animal slaughter practices, state cries foul

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 16:08

The Animal Welfare Institute has given Vermont a near failing grade when it comes to enforcing humane treatment of animals at slaughterhouse facilities, but the state’s agriculture agency disagrees with the rating.

LIVESTOCK TROUBLE: The state and one animal rights group disagree on the humane status of Vermont’s butchering practices.

“Consumers like to think that if they do eat meat, the animals were humanely treated,” said AWI Director Dena Jones. “So, it’s important that there be a watchdog over the slaughterhouses, and that is the government, and there should be somebody that is a watchdog over the government, so that’s what we’re doing.”

The AWI report lists two main concerns that largely account for Vermont’s D-plus rating — one is the frequency of reported violations at slaughterhouses, and the other is the response to those incidents.

Jones said it highly suspicious that only three serious incidents were reported over six years.

“Are the plants just performing really, really well, or are the inspectors just not doing their jobs?” she said.

According to the report, Vermont lists one record in 2010, two records in 2014 and one in 2015.

“That means for 2011, 2012 and 2013 they didn’t do one citation at any slaughterhouse for anything to do with animal handling,” she said. “It’s just extremely unlikely that they were all operating perfectly for three years. In my experience, it’s just not possible.”

The Vermont incidents that were listed involved animals not being rendered unconscious from a single gun shot. In one case, an animal had to be shot three times, which is considered egregious under federal guidelines and can result in a shutdown.

The state’s response

Randy Quenneville, program chief of meat inspection services at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, disputes AWI’s findings. He said the National Association of State Meat Inspection Directors is preparing a response that cites inaccuracies within AWI’s report.

“Given some of the inaccuracies identified, and a lack of inclusion of some other important pieces of relative data that we have so far noted in the report, we are doing our best to understand what processes and data were used in this piece … before we comment,” Quenneville said in an email sent to Vermont Watchdog.

He added that state and federal statutes concerning handling of animals is pretty detailed and includes the submission of an annual written plan to the state.

“To avoid a conflict of interest, the State sends the plans to a third party verification consultant for review,” Quenneville said. “The review includes evaluation of meeting the minimum requirements of the Humane Handling regulations in 9 CFR 313 as well as other components that go above and beyond those requirements.”

Quenneville said a formal response to WFI’s report will be issued later this month.

Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog.org. You can contact him at mbielawski@watchdog.org. 

Florida child welfare providers do more with less, but how much less?

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 11:42

For the community-based care providers that perform the lion’s share of child welfare services in Florida, the proposed 2017 budget is a disappointment.

A press release that accompanied the Jan. 31 release of Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s “Fighting for Florida’s future” budget proposal touts “a  record $632 million to provide core services to children who depend on Florida’s child welfare system.”

A LITTLE MORE: Gov. Rick Scott’s fiscal 2018 spending proposal would provide about $35 million less than is needed for child welfare services, according to the Florida Coalition for Children.

“Governor Scott and the Legislature have been exceptionally supportive of the child welfare system and [the Department of Children and Families] is committed to ensuring that all of our resources are directed to be as efficient and effective as possible in serving vulnerable families,” David Frady, press secretary for the Florida DCF, told Watchdog in an email.

But number-crunching done by Florida TaxWatch, a non-partisan taxpayer research group, shows that this statement fails to tell the whole story.

According to TaxWatch’s November 2015 report, real spending on child welfare services has declined since 2008, when inflation-adjusted funding for child welfare providers hit $674.1 million (in 2015 dollars).

At the same time as the effective operating budget of the DCF has been declining, the number of children entering the welfare system has been increasing.  

Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children and former state legislator, told Watchdog that there are several factors behind the increased demand for child welfare services.

Part of the growth of children in the system is an outcome of policy changes at the DCF that result in children being removed from unsuitable homes quicker — a good thing, Kelly says.

He added that high turnover rates of child protection investigators affect this process. CPIs investigate claims of abuse and determine if a child needs to be placed into foster care, but the turnover rate means many investigators are new on the job. “Eighty percent of folks making decisions have less than 2 years experience,” Kelly said. With DCF policies that favor caution and quick action above all else, this might lead to inflated child removal numbers.

The newest threat, Kelly says, is the opioid issue, which is affecting families across the state.  In addition to increased deaths from opioid misuse, CPIs are inclined to remove kids from homes if they see any signs of opioid abuse.

“We saw it in the Sarasota area, which may be the epicenter of the United States in this issue,” Kelly said. “In that area, our removal rate [of children from the family home] in the Sarasota/Manatee area is up 200 percent, which is … unsustainable.”

As of Feb. 28, Florida child welfare services were being provided to 41,707 children.

Underfunded and over-performing

Florida’s child welfare system relies on a community-based care model.

This means that once the DCF investigators have determined that a child needs to be pulled from home, they hand responsibility to regional care organizations. The not-for-profit private organizations administer services to children that enter the foster care system, as well as preventive care services for children that can remain at home, albeit in difficult circumstances.  

Seventeen CBC lead agencies operate around the state. These lead agencies, which are spread out around 20 different regions, include Community Based Care of Central Florida and Our Kids of Miami-Dade. They are accountable to the DCF, but operate independently, and subcontract care out to smaller community organizations.

UNSUSTAINABLE: Florida Coalition for Children CEO Kurt Kelly says that community child welfare providers can’t keep matching their record of success without adequate funding.

The transition from a more centralized, Tallahassee-administered services model began at the turn of the century. By 2006, the CBC model was  operational statewide.

Kelly told Watchdog that Florida’s welfare system now serves as a model for other states. But funding remains a problem.

He estimates that Florida’s child welfare system needs a $49 million budget increase for 2017-18.  DCF requested a $16 million increase for the community care centers.

The current proposal from Scott would allocate a $14.2 million funding increase for Florida’s community-based care providers.  

Florida TaxWatch says the system needs another $100 million. The group’s analysis shows that the community-based care providers in particular have been underfunded, while overperforming, for years.

Kelly told Watchdog that the community care providers were allowed access to a back-up funds several years ago, but quickly went through it. “When I tell you that we’re 20 million in the hole, that’s money that’s being spent right now.”

Decentralization is key

The 2012 Right for Kids Ranking, a report on child welfare systems across the nation, found that Florida has one of the best-performing systems.

Florida ranked fourth in the nation based on measureable outcomes such as adoption rates, family reunification and monthly caseworker visits.

The report found that if all states had welfare programs as effective as Florida’s, the U.S. would have 72,000 fewer kids in foster care per year and find adoptive families for 19,000 more.

Advocates like Florida’s Coalition for Children trace the effectiveness of the Florida system to its decentralization in 1998. Legislation mandated that the DCF contract direct care to private organizations operating at the local level.

Florida isn’t alone in experimenting with decentralizing state child welfare systems.  Kansas initiated similar privatization initiatives in 1995. Although the transition was rockier, a 2010 study by the Casey Family Programs found that “the general public, local communities and stakeholders are more invested in what is happening in Kansas child welfare than ever before,” and that more children were exiting the system into permanent homes.

A 2015 study by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Naples-based free market think-tank, examined Safe Families, a community-based private child welfare program in Chicago. The FGA report advocated shifting more child welfare power to community organizations.

Increasing the risk

Although the numbers show that the community-based care model has been a success in Florida and elsewhere,  no system is free from problems. 

Foster Shock, a 2016 documentary that tells the story of children who the Florida system has failed, and suggests that the decentralized, privatized system diverts money away from child services and into organization salaries.

Other dissenters focus less on the whole picture, and more on the individuals that child services has let down. Groups such as Florida’s Children First and firms like Talenfield Law advocate on behalf of the legal rights of children in the system — often, that means lawsuits in the face of the inevitable tragic failures.

“Even when we’re totally doing everything right there’s going to be slips and mistakes made and cracks in the system,” Dominic Calabro, CEO of Florida TaxWatch, told Watchdog. “But when you don’t have the full focus or the full reasonable resources, you just increase the risk. And you have high turnover [of caseworkers]. You just increase the likelihood that something bad will happen.”

Elle Piloseno, Florida TaxWatch researcher and author of the 2015 report, told Watchdog that insufficiently funding the system on the front end has social and fiscal implications for the future.

One of the biggest problems the foster care system faces is retaining case workers. High turnover rates mean that children deal with an increasing number of case managers — and that adds to their time in the system.  

“Every time that this kid needs to be handed over to a new case manager, that case manager has to be trained, they have to be familiarized with the children that they’re serving, they have to be familiarized with the families and the individual characteristics of that situation,” Piloseno said. “All that time adds up when you’re trading hands a bunch of times, which is why turnover is such a huge issue.”

And as a general rule, the longer a child spends in the foster care system, the worse off they are. When kids age out of the system at 18 before finding a permanent home, pregnancy rates go up. High school diploma rates go down. “A quarter of the youth that are aging out of the child welfare system end up being incarcerated within two years,” Piloseno said.

The TaxWatch study found that in addition to creating poor outcomes for children, workforce turnover adds to the taxpayer burden.

“Florida employs almost 3,800 case managers, of which an estimated 37 percent (approximately 1,400) resign and are replaced within one year.” The study found this costs the state approximately $14 million annually.

Prolonging an individual child’s stay in the welfare system has a significant cost. “Taxpayers could pay up to $70,000 per year to care for one child in out-of-home care,” TaxWatch reports.

“People need to understand there’s a real connection and real consequence when you don’t fund [the system],” said Calabro. “Pay me now, or pay me later.”

If it ain’t broke …

But if the system is performing as well as advocates say it is relative to the national standard with its current funding levels, does it really need more money?  

“You didn’t just play the devil’s advocate, you played the legislative advocate,” said Kelly. “That’s exactly one of our problems.”

“We have done so much more for less, which is a good thing … and we did all of that while there wasn’t a dramatic increase of kids coming into the system,” he said. New influxes of kids into the system are straining strapped resources. Moreover, he argues, Florida’s foster system might be doing well relative to other states, but they still have a lot of ways they can improve and better protect kids.

The community based care providers depend heavily on philanthropy to perform the basic functions DCF has tasked them with, which is exactly the type of local engagement that makes community-based care so effective. However, Kelly says that doesn’t absolve the state of its duty to properly fund the programs.

“The state has a responsibility to provide those resources, because we’re frankly doing the services for the state,” he said.

“They couldn’t do it, we are doing it, and we’re doing a much better job. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an obligation to make sure that they fund this the right way,” Kelly said.

Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog. Contact her at eclark@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

Lawmakers turning against Scott’s $35 million housing bond

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 16:02

Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed $35 million bond for affordable housing seemed to have broad support only months ago, but now the proposal appears to be on life support.

HOUSING: Gov. Phil Scott wants a new $35 million bond to boost housing in Vermont, but critics say the the money’s not there and the plan is a raw deal for taxpayers.

In January, when Scott introduced the bond idea to help alleviate the Vermont housing crunch, taxpayer subsidized housing sounded like a bipartisan plan. Right now, a Senate committee is barely keeping S.100, the housing bond proposal, alive.

Both Scott and officials at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development touted the housing bond as a basis to employ 1,000 workers, build 500 additional housing units, place 1,000 residents into improved housing and create $100 million in new construction and renovation projects statewide. The concept seemed to dovetail neatly with several of the governor’s agenda items: helping build jobs and the economy while protecting vulnerable citizens.

What a difference two-and-half months make, at least when it comes to devising a way to pay for it all. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee delayed the bill following the Senate Finance Committee’s vote to pay for the bond through a controversial $2 per night hospitality occupancy fee.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said he wasn’t sure if the bond plan will remain. Many Democrats and even some Republicans agree with Ashe.

Soon-departing state Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, a member of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, doesn’t like the housing bond. He told Vermont Watchdog the approach is symptomatic of how the state is creating a “culture of dependency” on taxpayer-subsidized rents.

“Anybody who’s concerned about Vermont’s future and our young people will have to admit that housing is a major issue,” Tate said. “But one of the problems I have is the method by which the state tries to solve this problem — through the VHCB, [the] Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. It raises a red flag for me.”

VHCB makes deferred loans for the acquisition, rehabilitation and construction of affordable housing by quasi-government nonprofit housing organizations. Since 1987, more than 11,000 permanently affordable homes have been subsidized, thanks to Vermont taxpayers and VHCB.

But critics like Tate say Montpelier’s approach to the housing problem is to build homes that must be subsidized by taxpayers in perpetuity. VHCB has over $200 million in assets, but they are the taxpayer’s assets, said Tate. Moreover, VHCB collects nothing on behalf of the taxpayers and doesn’t raise rents with any regularity.

“They are building a culture where taxpayers buy into housing projects which we then have to subsidize forever. This, in turn, means keeping population incomes below a certain level just so they can stay in these homes,” he said.

State Rep. Jim Condon, D-Colchester, a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, told Watchdog the bond may not make it out of committee. Ironically, the bond may founder in part due to Scott’s repeated call to House and Senate lawmakers to avoid new taxes and fees.

“The housing bond appears to be dead in the water at the moment,” Condon told Watchdog. “The funding mechanism proposed, the $2 a night extra tax, is a non-starter for me.”

Tate argues that rents would be lowered organically if landlord-tenant laws were reformed to give relief to landlords. He added that public-private partnerships might offer a better way to fix the affordable housing problem.

“Creating this constant culture of subsidizing housing as the only method to help people is absurd,” Tate said. “We need to get the free market involved; if there’s a demand for affordable housing, then there’s someone out there, privately, who can help feed the demand.”

Louis Varricchio is Vermont bureau chief for Vermont Watchdog.org. You can contact him at lvarricchio@watchdog.org.

Texas student commits suicide after Title IX kangaroo court

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 15:49

DUE PROCESS: A male student accused of sexual harassment committed suicide after campus officials denied him due process.

If every other egregious example of a male student denied due process after being accused of sexual misconduct gets ignored – this one should not be.

A male student who was accused of sexual harassment committed suicide just days after the University of Texas at Arlington ignored its own policies in order to punish him. The accused student’s father, a lawyer acting as the administrator of his son’s estate, is now suing the school for violating his son’s Title IX rights.

College administrators, as well as members of the media and legislators, would do well to remember the name Thomas Klocke. Klocke, a straight male, was accused by a gay male student of writing anti-gay slurs on his computer during a class. Klocke vehemently denied the accusation, and administrators who investigated the incident acknowledged there was no evidence to support the accuser’s claims, yet Klocke was still punished.

The accusing student, who is being sued by Klocke’s father for defamation, claims that in May 2016, Klocke made a comment during a class about “privilege,” and then proceeded to open his laptop and type “gays should die” into his web browser’s search bar. The accuser (who is not being named because Watchdog was unable to contact him for comment) claims he typed into his own browser search bar, “I’m gay.”

The accuser next claimed that Klocke feigned a yawn and said under his breath: “Well, then you’re a faggot.” The accuser says he told Klocke he should leave the class, to which Klocke allegedly responded: “You should consider killing yourself.”

The accuser claims he was made so uncomfortable by the exchange that he waited until the end of class and spoke to the professor, who allegedly told him to contact student support services. There is no documentation to suggest the professor was interviewed in the course of the investigation in order to corroborate the accuser’s claims. The attorney for Klocke’s father, Kenneth Chaiken, told Watchdog the professor never provided a witness statement, suggesting he was never asked what he saw that day.

Not following procedure

Klocke insisted that what happened in that mid-May class in 2016 was completely different than what the accuser claimed. Klocke said his accuser made unwelcome sexual advances toward him. Klocke rejected the advances, telling his eventual accuser that he was straight. The lawsuit suggests that this rejection led the accuser to make up his story, possibly out of fear that he himself could be accused of sexual misconduct.

Instead of seeking support services, the accuser reached out to Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Heather Snow, with whom he had a friendly relationship. The accuser was close enough to Snow to refer to her by her first name at times, and Snow quickly became the accuser’s advocate, helping him to draft a complaint against Klocke and conducting the disciplinary procedure without following the school’s Title IX policies.

The lawsuit alleges that UTA’s Title IX coordinator was not informed of the allegation, even though Snow suggested it constituted sexual harassment. This is a violation of UTA’s policies regarding sexual misconduct, which state complaints “should be made to the Title IX Coordinator or Deputy Coordinators.” Snow was neither.

Further, UTA’s Title IX policies state that the Title IX coordinator is responsible for overseeing the investigation and assigning an investigator. The investigator must then produce a report based on facts gathered and present it to the Title IX coordinator and deputy coordinator before any hearing.

Klocke received no hearing, even though he contradicted his accuser’s claims. Had Snow properly reported the complaint to the Title IX coordinator, Klocke would have received necessary protections from the school. By doing things on her own terms, Snow was able to deny Klocke his rights as stated in UTA policy.

Snow took control of the disciplinary procedure that involved a complaint she wrote herself. She enlisted the help of UTA’s associate director of academic integrity, Daniel Moore, and had him tell Klocke he was immediately prohibited from attending the class where the incident was alleged to have occurred. Klocke was completing the course as part of a short, pre-summer semester in order to graduate that summer.

When Klocke was informed that an accusation had been lodged against him, he was not told the name of his accuser. Klocke was also informed that he could not contact anyone in the class, directly or indirectly, effectively denying him any ability to find witnesses to corroborate his story.

His accuser was able to remain in the class and find witnesses. He found only one, who didn’t corroborate his account but did say he overheard someone say “you should leave.” This could have been said by either Klocke or his accuser in either of their stories.

Klocke told Moore he needed to attend the class and asked for more information about the accusation against him. Moore ignored this request but sent Klocke a “summons letter” on May 20. The lawsuit alleges Moore never informed Klocke that this was a Title IX investigation (as Moore usually handled academic issues) or Klocke’s rights under Title IX.

Moore also never told Klocke that he would not be allowed a hearing. He was never informed that Snow – who was not an impartial party – was running the show, even helping Moore determine a punishment.

Klocke was charged with violating Title IX based solely on the accusation. He was charged with two violations: physical abuse or threat thereof and a non-specific violation of the school’s anti-harassment policy. It should be noted that the accuser never claimed Klocke was physical or threatened physical harm.

By charging Klocke in this manner, UTA further violated its own policies, which state that charges are supposed to come after an investigation and hearing, and after the accused has had a chance to present witnesses in his defense.

The accuser’s report, written in whole or part by Snow, was described as “a statement of evidence” against Klocke. Klocke was not provided a list of witnesses, even though Moore’s summons letter said he would do so.

Moore’s letter informed Klocke that he could be expelled over the accusation, though UTA policy states that accused students facing such punishment have the right to a hearing (which Klocke was denied).

Klocke met with Moore on May 23, 2016. Klocke brought his father, Wayne, an attorney, but was told Wayne could not stay. Moore did not tell Klocke that his father would be allowed to stay if Klocke waived confidentiality.

No investigation

Wayne’s attorneys deposed Snow and Moore ahead of filing the lawsuit, and received documents from UTA regarding Klocke’s case.

Notes from Moore’s meeting with Klocke indicate the accused student said he didn’t know the name of his accuser prior to the incident, and wondered how the accuser knew his name. Klocke also told his side of the story, claiming his accuser sat next to him that day in class and called Klocke beautiful. Klocke said he typed into his browser “Stop – I’m straight,” to which his accuser replied: “I’m gay.”

Klocke further said his accuser kept glancing at him, so he asked him to “stop.” He denied faking a yawn and said he was the one to ask his accuser to leave. His accuser began typing on his phone and laughing, which Klocke found distracting, so he moved across the room about 30 to 45 minutes into class. Klocke denied typing any slurs into his web browser.

Despite learning that Klocke may have been the victim of sexual harassment, no investigation was conducted and Klocke was not told he should file a report.

After the meeting, Moore informed Klocke that he needed to go to a private room to take an exam for the class he was not allowed to attend. Since Klocke had not been allowed to attend class in the prior days, he was unaware of some of the test material, and thus did poorly. Moore also told Klocke he could continue working on group projects outside of class, but couldn’t attend the class itself.

Moore informed Klocke he would be speaking to a witness and would decide Klocke’s fate after. UTA Policy 9 states that disputed accusations and charges that could result in expulsion shall include a hearing. Again, Klocke was denied this.

On May 24, 2016, Moore and Snow discussed the case. Snow asked if Klocke acknowledged the behavior he was accused of, to which Moore replied: “not at all.” He told Snow the students had completely different accounts of the incident in question, but did not tell Snow what Klocke’s story was.

Moore also told Snow he didn’t have enough evidence to keep Klocke out of class. Snow agreed, saying “there isn’t enough to go off of” and said Klocke should be allowed back in the class with a mutual no-contact order with his accuser. Instead, Moore said he would look for another way to keep Klocke out of the class, and Snow told him to see if the class would be offered later in the summer. This, the lawsuit states, effectively confirmed “that Thomas not only should remain excluded from the classroom, but that he should be excluded from the Course altogether, despite the fact there was not enough to go off of, to keep Thomas out of the classroom.”

Moore reported back to Snowe that he “worked it out” to keep Klocke out of the class. Snow said it seemed like a “good resolution.”

Moore sent Klocke a letter the next day, on May 25, stating that Klocke had been found responsible for harassment (even though Moore and Snow acknowledged there was no evidence to support this claim). Klocke was placed on disciplinary probation for the remainder of his time at UTA, and would have this on his disciplinary record.

It was never explained to Klocke why he was found responsible when there was no evidence.

“This is a tragic situation and we express our deepest condolences to the family for their loss,” the university said in a statement to Watchdog. “The welfare of our students is our highest priority.  Any loss is a heartbreaking one for our entire community.

“The university followed its policies and procedures.  This is now the subject of a lawsuit in federal court; therefore, we are unable to respond further at this time,” the statement said.

‘The most tragic outcome’

Chaiken, the attorney who filed that lawsuit, told Watchdog that someone informed Klocke that this disciplinary record could keep him out of grad school, which Klocke had planned to attend after graduation in the summer.

Just days after Klocke was punished, he took his own life. Had Snow and Moore followed proper UTA policy, Klocke might never have been punished in the first place, as he would have been allowed a hearing to present evidence in his defense.

Klocke’s father alleges his son was discriminated against because he was a male accused student, and that Snow and Moore selectively enforced UTA’s Title IX procedures.

Klocke had no prior history of mental health problems, and by all accounts was happy and looking forward to the future after graduation. In a statement to Watchdog, Chaiken expressed the importance of a fair investigation.

“When a college violates the legal rights of a student accused of misconduct, and its own rules for addressing such a complaint, the accused student can suffer life altering consequences,” he said in an email. “The important case of Klocke v. University of Texas at Arlington illustrates just how quickly and arbitrarily a college can act, leading to the most tragic outcome from the unimaginable stress and pain that an unfairly treated, accused student can suffer.  It also serves to underscore why reforms in the campus disciplinary process are so necessary, as recently recommended by the American College of Trial Lawyers, and why accountability through the judicial process may help to promote those reforms.”

UPDATE: This story was updated to add a comment from the university.

Despite Trump’s proposed cuts, Essential Air Service is not going anywhere

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 15:12

LANDED: Skywest Airlines serves Meridian and Hattiesburg-Laurel under the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes flights to airports serving less-urban areas.

The Essential Air Service program, originally intended to sunset after one decade, is now in its fifth. And despite being targeted for cuts in President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal, the program that subsidizes travel at four Magnolia State airports is highly unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget says the program — which provides per-passenger subsidies to airlines serving small airports that might otherwise lose commercial air service — is unnecessary because some EAS-eligible airports are relatively close to major airports and could be served by other existing modes of transportation. The Office of Management and Budget said in the 2018 proposal that axing the program could save $175 million.

The EAS subsidy was developed after airline deregulation in 1978 and was intended to sunset after 10 years. Now, 41 years later, it’s still here, despite some reforms by the Obama administration that eliminated the eligibility of some airports.  Greenville, Hattiesburg-Laurel, Meridian and Tupelo are the Mississippi airports served by EAS.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker said in a statement that he’s committed to keeping the program flying.

“Reliable air service provides an important economic benefit to Mississippians,” Wicker said. “Many of the state’s airports rely on the Essential Air Service program to deliver dependable and safe air travel. I am hopeful that our airports could soon be supported by innovative solutions that rely less heavily on taxpayer funding. Until then, I believe that Congress should find other ways to achieve budget savings.”

Chris Gallegos, spokesperson for Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, told Mississippi Watchdog that Cochran is looking forward to considering the Trump administration’s budget proposal, but didn’t mention whether the senator would support continuing the program.

Robert Poole is the director of transportation at the libertarian Reason Foundation and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineer who has advised four administrations on transportation issues. He says the likelihood of the EAS program being scrapped is minimal, even though he says it isn’t cost-effective.

“It’s something that’s very popular with members of Congress,” Poole told Mississippi Watchdog. “It’s hard for me to believe that they could get a majority in either house for this to pass.”

Trimming around the edges might be a better bet.

The number of airports served by the program has been cut from 117 when the program was started to 78 in the continental United States as of October 2016.

And the Department of Transportation promulgated new rules, subject to waivers, including a cap on the per-passenger subsidy at $200 in 2014 unless the airport is 210 miles or more from a major hub airport. Rules on the minimum 10 boarding passengers per day and an airport’s proximity to a larger facility are enforced on airports receiving EAS subsidies, and airports that can’t comply lose funding. The DOT can provide waivers, however, which it did most recently last year for communities that are in violation of either the per-passenger subsidy cap or the proximity rule.

“They’ve tried to tighten up things since in some cases per-passenger subsidies were more than $1,000, which seems kind of egregious,” Poole said. “There’s bus service to the vast majority of places that could get you to a place with a bigger airport. It’s a pimple on the face of the federal government, but it does seem outrageous for ordinary people paying taxes that subsidies at that level should be provided.”

Two of the smaller Mississippi airports that receive EAS subsidies are struggling to maintain them.

Tupelo’s subsidy was threatened with termination because the federal government pays $333 per passenger, or $1.7 million per year to small carrier Contour Airlines for flights to Nashville on nine-passenger turboprops. The DOT granted Tupelo a waiver after Contour had to interrupt service. Tupelo is 203 miles from Nashville’s airport. Passenger traffic at the airport has plunged from more than 5,500 in 2014 to 2,560 in 2015.

Greenville’s Mid-Delta Airport is served by Boutique Airlines, a small carrier with flights to Dallas-Fort Worth and whose agreement expires later this year. Under the new proposal filed by Boutique, the annual EAS subsidy would climb from more than $2 million per year to $2.7 million in the first year of a four-year agreement. The agreement would top out at $2.9 million per year. Passenger numbers in Greenville have dropped off severely from more than 1,600 in 2014 to 723 in 2015.

The state’s two other EAS airports are showing better results.

Hattiesburg-Laurel and Meridian are enjoying heavier passenger traffic and are even adding flights. Both airports, served by SkyWest Airlines to its Dallas-Fort Worth hub, have added flights to Chicago this summer. Their per-passenger subsidies are the lowest in the state, with Hattiesburg-Laurel’s at $184 per passenger and Meridian’s at $79 per passenger. In 2014, both airports had more than 6,600 emplanements apiece. In 2015, those numbers jumped to more than 24,000 for Meridian and more than 12,900 for Hattiesburg-Laurel.

Hattiesburg-Laurel’s annual subsidy is $3.1 million while Meridian’s is $2.9 million. Both are less than 210 miles from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, an airport the DOT considers a medium-sized hub.

Steve Wilson reports for Mississippi Watchdog. Contact him at swilson@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

Vermont AG passes buck on 41-conviction hit-and-run driver

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 11:47

JUSTICE?: Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy and Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan speak to community members at a public forum addressing Vermont’s criminal justice system. Last April, farmer Leo Branchaud was killed in front of his home by 41-time repeat offender and hit-and-run driver Thomas H. Velde, Jr.

TINMOUTH, Vt. — What first appeared as a goodwill gesture by Attorney General TJ Donovan to the people of Tinmouth quickly turned into a lesson on passing the buck.

At a public forum Sunday, Donovan blamed local law enforcement, prosecutors, pharmaceutical companies and a lack of funding and community involvement for allowing Thomas H. Velde Jr., a man with 41 previous convictions, to re-enter the community and kill local farmer Leo Branchaud.

More than 200 people in the small, southern Vermont town packed the community center to hear Donovan and Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy speak about Vermont’s justice system less than two weeks before the anniversary of Branchaud’s death.

Tinmouth residents say they reported Velde’s reckless driving to state police multiple times after he was seen driving through the community at high speeds, though the state had revoked his license. However, no response was seen from state law enforcement, and Velde eventually struck and killed Branchaud in front of Branchaud’s Tinmouth Farm, fleeing the scene.

While Donovan repeatedly acknowledged the need for harsher sentencing, including jail time for people with a second DUI offense, he refused to endorse such legislation when asked by Branchaud’s widow, Tami Carboni-Branchaud, saying that “this is a hard conversation.”

FORUM: Hundreds of Tinmouth residents came out to hear what Vermont law enforcement officials plan to do about reforming the state’s laws for driving under the influence.

Kennedy said her office considers DUI charges as serious offenses that endanger the community. Still, under Vermont law, the first two DUI charges are only misdemeanors. State prosecutors continually ask for harsher sentencing, Kennedy said, but “if we ask for jail time we wouldn’t get it.”

On average, a drunk driver will drive 80 times under the influence before their first arrest. That’s 80 times community lives are in danger.

“They don’t go to jail because we’ve decided that’s not how we’re going to spend our money,” Kennedy said of the court system.

According to the Vera Institute for Justice, Vermont spends an average of $49,502 to incarcerate an inmate for one year. That is the fourth highest expense rate in the country. Donovan said Vermont’s price tag for jail time is especially concerning when faced with a 50 percent recidivism rate from offenders within three years.

During discussions about the cost to the state, a mother of a different DUI victim told the state , “What I hear is that you’ve placed a value on my son’s life because the state cannot afford to protect [him].”

While the discontent in the room was palpable, Kennedy said lawmakers hear a multitude of voices from communities. “We just had a DUI four sentencing with one year in jail, and there were protests outside the courthouse,” she said.

Donovan and Kennedy emphasized the role drugs play in crime, saying the state should focus on access to rehabilitation, which is often not available in prison.

“If we’re going to call it a disease … we need to treat it like a disease,” said Donovan said, sparking indignation from many in the audience.

“They choose to put that needle in their arm,” said Jodi Carboni, the victim’s sister. “The state is treating drug addicts as victims rather than criminals.” The hall erupted in applause.

State health care leaders are embracing a new school of thought which treats addiction as a chronic illness, with methadone as prescribed medication.

Though Donovan gave no indication he was prepared to make tangible moves toward reform, three options for addressing the situation became evident during the discussion: petition legislators to introduce bills increasing the legal minimum sentence for DUI and repeat offenders; create uniformity in the judicial college, and remove judges who give light sentences for repeat DUI offenders; and elect leaders who will actively work to address problems of repeat convictions and community endangerment.

It may be too little too late for Tinmouth. During the public comment period, one audience member said in frustration, “We can vote you out, but that doesn’t seem like a harsh enough penalty for not doing your job.”

Emma Lamberton is Vermont Watchdog’s Rutland area and health care reporter. Contact her at elamberton@watchdog.org or @EmmaBeth9.

E-cigarette critics get research dollars from industry competitors

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 04:22

Some interesting news recently landed in Jeff Stier’s inbox.

“Today’s a good day to quit smoking!” proclaimed an email from NYC Quits, part of a statewide tobacco control program that gives away free nicotine patches and gum every year.

INBOX INVITE: New York City gives away free nicotine patches as part of it’s quit smoking program

Stier, a risk analyst with the National Center for Public Policy Analysis, signed up for the program, not because he’s a smoker (other than the occasional cigar) but for research.

“I got a few free nicotine patches. I was interested in seeing if I could feel the nicotine,’ he told Watchdog.org. “But the next morning in the shower, I felt something strange on my skin and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot!’ It was imperceptible.”

Stier said the fact that the patch has government backing as a smoking cessation product is more alarming.

“If you’re a smoker and you want nicotine, this product is going to do nothing for most people,” he said.

The patch is one of four nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) approved by the FDA to help people quit smoking. Three others are prescription-only. Nicotrol NS is a nicotine nasal spray, while Chantix and Zyban are non-nicotine medications.

The FDA, however, does not report success rates for these products. And the best Smokefree.gov can do is say they “increase your chances of quitting successfully.”

Research varies, but one study found 9.2 percent of people who used the patch were still smoke-free after six months, versus 8.4 percent for Nicotine gum. According to WebMD, quit rates for all five NRTs range from 19 percent to 26 percent, while Chantix and Zyban are 33 percent and 24 percent effective, respectively.

RELATED: Science challenges FDA vaping regulation, and Trump might be next

Studies also show, however, that e-cigarettes might belong on the FDA’s list.

Researchers have found that e-cigarettes are not only 95 percent less harmful than the cumbustible version, but they have helped 6.1 million people in Europe quit smoking and another nine million have cut back on their habit.

In other words, 15.1 million smokers in the EU have either quit or curtailed an activity that kills 400,000 Americans per year, using a product that’s 95 percent less harmful.

But rather than add e-cigs to its nice list, the FDA — whose stated mission is “protecting the public health” — the agency warns against them for smoking cessation based on “potential health risks.”

Instead, the FDA is regulating vape products, possibly out of existence with the 2016 “deeming” rule that treats tobacco-less liquid nicotine products as tobacco products.

“So people who have tried to quit and failed, and tried to quit and failed, don’t have other choices that the public health establishment supports,” said Stier.

And that establishment is getting help from Big Pharma-funded medical research.

The prestigious Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic and its Nicotine Dependence Center, for one, has followed the FDA’s lead in calling e-cigarettes a method to avoid due to lack of risk data and “mixed results” of studies so far.

And Mayo Clinic addiction expert and researcher Dr. Jon Ebbert has been an outspoken critic for several years. The star of Mayo Clinic in-house podcasts and videos, Ebbert has repeatedly advised against e-cigs.

“I think we need to be very clear as clinicians that these electronic cigarettes have an unknown safety profile,” Ebbert said in Mayo Clinic videos in both 2015 and 2016,

And in a widely circulated 2013 column and a 2015 research paper, Ebbert advised clinicians to be “justifiably circumspect in recommending e-cigarettes” for smokers until there is more data.

But the fine print at the end of both lists the following “potential” conflicts of interest:

“Joe (sic) O. Ebbert, MD, MSc, reports receiving grants from JHP Pharmaceuticals, Orexigen, and Pfizer outside the submitted work; he also reports receiving personal fees from GlaxoSmithKline.”

Pfizer makes Nicotrol NS, a nicotine nasal spray, and Chantix. The company’s website and a ProPublica database show Ebbert racked up $646,584 between 2010 and 2014 in research grants.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is responsible for Zyban and Nicorette gum and lozenges, paid Ebbert $7,129 in consulting fees in 2010 and 2011.

The Mayo clinic, Ebbert, and GSK did not respond to Watchdog.org requests for comment. Pfizer sent a statement saying physicians offer companies vital feedback and advice grounded in their expertise and clinical practice experience, and there’s nothing wrong with paying for it:

“Pfizer believes it is appropriate and ethical to fairly compensate healthcare professionals for the work they do with us. Pfizer does not pay healthcare professionals for prescribing our medicines or using our medical devices, or as an inducement for promoting our products.”

Appearance of bias

Boston University public health professor and tobacco control expert Dr. Michael Siegel agrees, telling Watchdog.org that drug company money doesn’t mean a researcher is going to consciously bias the results. But as the full-court press on e-cigarettes demonstrates, bias can still exist.

“Conflict of interest refers to a subconscious bias that the researcher isn’t aware of,” he said. “A conflict of interest creates the appearance of bias, whether it’s present or not”

Siegel spent two years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and testified in the $145 billion lawsuit against the tobacco companies. He has long criticized conflicts of interest in tobacco research, documenting them on his blog, “The Rest of the Story.”

Siegel points out the Mayo Clinic website has made a number of misleading statements about e-cigarettes, as has Dr. Richard Hurt, the director of Mayo’s Nicotine Dependence Center. He says Hurt, who received nearly $65,000 in Pfizer and GSK money between 2009 and 2014, questioned the sanity of e-cigarette users.

“One of the solutions that the nicotine and the e-cigarette is dissolved into is called propylene glycol which is a cousin of antifreeze and why anybody would want to puff on something and put that in their mouth is amazing,” Hurt said in a 2013 video for the hospital.

But it’s not just Mayo and the FDA. Siegel says the vaping industry is getting hit by the CDC as well as many health organizations and departments.

“It’s a phenomenon in the entire e-cigarette industry,” he said, “Nowhere do [researchers] actually come out and say, ‘e-cigarettes are a lot safer than cigarettes and that there’s a huge relative risk difference between the two.’ They’re really using scare tactics to demonize e-cigarettes.”

And smokers will suffer.

“It’s going to convince many smokers who might otherwise have quit by switching to e-cigs, to not quit,” Siegel said.

RELATED: Groups take FDA vaping rules fight to Trump, Congress

In the meantime, facing a regulation that could cost $77 million in compliance costs each year, the vaping industry sees Big Pharma’s huge research footprint as more firepower to squeeze out competition.

Lou Ritter is the president emeritus of the American E-Liquid Manufacturers Association (AEMSA), a volunteer trade organization that creates safe manufacturing standards for the liquids used in vape products.

In 2014 he started the E-Research Foundation as a way for the industry to collectively fund science.

“Every other industry funds its own science. They’re just big corporations that are out there competing and they have a lot more money,” Ritter said on a conference call hosted by the E-Vaping Coalition of America. “This is the first industry that has really come up through consumer incentivization and consumer motivation, so there isn’t a lot of money in one place.”

Ritter was invited to a workshop in February held by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as part of an FDA directive to review existing research on the health effects from using electronic nicotine delivery systems and identify future federally funded research needs.

The report is due for release at the end of this year or early 2018. And while Ritter is pleased the FDA has taken this step, he hopes it’s not too little, too late.

“I think this should have happened a year ago, before the regulatory time-clock started,” he said. “This is probably the last chance for this industry.”

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