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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Typically, executive orders can be rescinded by a governor if they are either no longer useful, no longer effective or have been superseded by legislative enactment.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.”

Haupt’s Take: The do nothing Congress continues to do nothing

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 00:00

By William Haupt III | Haupt’s Take

“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” (Gideon Tucker)

Harry Truman an ardent defender of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs entered the national limelight during World War II as the head of a Senate committee investigating defense spending. He was praised for uncovering graft and inefficiency in our war production industries. Upon FDR’s death he assumed the office of president and faced grave decisions in both domestic and foreign policy as the War escalated.

When Germany surrendered in 1945, Truman was unable to negotiate a “united Germany” and surrendered half of the liberated country to the Soviets. And this misgiving marked the beginning of a new war for the US: The Cold War! He disseminated to all of America,

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

Truman was aggressive on foreign policy. In 1945 he approved the use of atomic bombs against Japan; and this essentially ended the war. By 1947 he passed the Truman Doctrine that promised U.S. aid to countries that resisted Communist aggression. Truman followed this initiative with the Marshall Plan. This aided the restoration of Western Europe by providing them financial aide to rebuild their infrastructure.

But after North Korea invaded South Korea, he authorized deploying U.S. troops to Korea which proved costly. When he removed MacArthur from his command before he completed his mission, Americans became disenchanted with him and his credibility tumbled. They turned a deaf ear to his pleas for their support: “We are trying to prevent a third world war!”

By now Republicans had control of both houses for the 1st time in years. Truman fought adamantly to prevent the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act which restricted the powers that labor unions had acquired under FDR. By 1948 it appeared Truman would not win reelection.

But following a split in his party, he called Congress back into session to present his “Fair Deal” social reforms. When the Republicans blew him off, he labeled them the “do nothing Congress.” In retaliation, he started every campaign speech berating Congress which enabled him to beat Dewey handily.

“Truman’s ‘give em hell Harry’ speeches about Congress should be replayed each election.” (Alvin Fisher)

No president used Congress as a political punching bag better than Truman until Obama arrived in DC. Like Truman, Obama turned his reelection into a run against a “do nothing Congress,” and it worked. But, considering the hand they dealt their Congresses it’s not all that bad being called a “do nothing Congress.”

Who passed cap and trade and Obamacare? Both passed against the will of the people. Obamacare passed by one Senate vote, with the notorious Nebraska “Cornhusker Kickback” and the second “Louisiana Purchase.”  Like give em hell Harry he showed America,

“I‘ve become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” (Barack Obama)

Although Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of the job Obama’s Congress was doing, this low rating was due to his partisanship and lack of leadership. Obama’s “do nothing Congress” saved our Constitution from even more harm by him and the courts.

Although Congress is hired to pass laws if the president does not sign them who is at fault? Who can blame Congress?

“Our founders created the Executive Branch to implement and enforce laws written by Congress.” (Tom Rice)

Certainly past lawmakers have produced pioneering legislation. But during the Obama regime too many of his legislative proposals were self-serving. He tried vainly to convince voters what he was tendering would make “changes” to benefit them. But these seductive inducements were not close to reality, and Congress shot them down quicker than superman can stop a speeding bullet. But Obama’s “going nowhere bill proposals” helped him rack up points with his progressive allies and raised campaign cash because they were things they wanted to hear.

Yet Congress knew most of these asseverations were unconstitutional and he only proposed them to grab headlines. He’d then point his finger at Congress and blame them for his divide and conquer political style. His Congress knew well that

“Idealism loses to pragmatism when it comes to political pandering.” (Doug Strong)

Supporters of limited government argue the number of bills passed is not real productivity. Fiscal proponents applauded Congress for keeping the amount of legislation passed at a minimum. They knew with the GOP in charge of Congress they could detain the rapid growth of government under an unpredictable progressive leader.

Therefore at the time this was an asset rather than a liability. In Congress most key decisions are made by a handful of power players. With the GOP calling the shots, this minimized the damage of the progressive agenda which benefited the republic.

“It is not always what you do that matters; sometimes it’s what you do not do that matters most.” (Art Strass)

With the election of President Trump, Americans firmly believed we had all the players in place to make America great again. We had a non political pragmatic president and his party controlled both houses of Congress. American voters now felt confident they would finally see that “change they could believe in.”

But voters found out they had been fooled when Congress started criticizing almost every move he made. They learned pragmatists suffer if they are dealing with self-absorbed cowards who’d rather play hide and seek than expose themselves to a battle.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” (William Shakespeare)

And again the progressives are pointing a finger at this administration blaming them for doing nothing. So far they are right. We still have a “do nothing Congress.” Although Trump supporters remain respectful for Trump’s patriotic principals, they are under-impressed with his Congress and their inability to help our president move his mandates forward.

Instead of showing up each day and prolonging the agony of non-governing, many are wondering if they don’t stand for anything, they’ll fall for anything, and maybe Congress should be replaced every four years instead of the president. Considering what they’ve done it’s hard to argue with the truth when it stares you in the face.

“This republic was not established by cowards; and cowards will not preserve it.” (E. Davis)

When Obama was president, by virtue, “do-nothing” was doing a lot for America. But Obama now is just a bad chapter in history. And a Congress that “does nothing” when they have the opportunity to “do something” is a body of obstinate lawmakers.

Nobody expects perfection from the imperfect but not following the mandate of the voters who elected you is biting the hand that feeds you and getting away with it.

“To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.”  (Hubert H. Humphrey)

Will Rogers said, “If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.” Capitol Hill needs a leader who can lead. And the people gave them one. This was supposed to be the year Congress finally started acting like adults. Yet empty offices pock the executive branch, caused by aberrant Senate obstruction.

Now we’ve learned their promise to rid us of that devil ObamaScare, was just empty words. If the wheels don’t start turning soon on Capitol Hill, every day they stand idle it will cost President Trump to lose momentum and risk closing the political window for major changes to fix our republic.

“Scientists claim the Thread Snake has the smallest backbone of any creature on the planet. It makes one wonder if they also examined the members of Congress?” (Alice Crowe)

This article was written by a contributor from Franklin Center’s independent network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists. 

Will conservative reforms survive Republican infighting?

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 17:24

MADISON, Wis. – So much for going big and bold.

The Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee this week said it will pull out 83 “non-fiscal” policies from Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 budget. More so, the Committee on Joint Finance would start fresh on the controversial transportation budget – in what ultimately could force a budget showdown between the Republican-controlled Assembly and the governor.

STORM BREWING? As the Legislature’s Joint Finance committee strips scores of proposals from Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan, the sniping goes on over transportation spending. Some conservatives are concerned the bickering will distract lawmakers from passing bold government reforms while there is strength in numbers.

Of the myriad proposals tucked inside Walker’s $76 billion biennial budget plan, several are warmly endorsed by fiscal conservatives who have led the charge on limited-government legislation.

Gone is the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act, requiring any administrative rule with a compliance cost exceeding $10 million to be reviewed by the Legislature.

So is prevailing wage repeal.

Welfare reform remains, but the proposal is watered down.

What’s left is Walker’s plan to pump $649 million more into K-12 education, the cornerstone piece of the budget that has given fiscal hawks fits.

“What we’re left with is a large increase in spending (mostly on K-12 education), a few decent tax cuts, and an indication from finance committee leadership that they will increase spending on transportation,” said Eric Bott, state director for Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin. The nonpartisan, free-market advocacy group has been highly critical of the big-ticket spending items coming from lawmakers who claim to have the best interest of taxpayers in mind.

Wisconsin road builders and their powerful lobby are feeling a little more relief knowing what just about every budget watcher expected: Their friends in the Assembly would keep gas tax and vehicle fee hikes on the table.

Walker has adamantly rejected a gas tax increase to fill an estimated $1 billion shortfall at the state Department of Transportation, particularly for an agency shown to have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on bad planning and building practices.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has threatened to call an override vote should the governor pull out his veto pen. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau has said he’s not on board with such intraparty wars.

Walker and Vos have of late been sniping at each other  in a very public feud that has titillated the left and the usual suspect press.

“As I said in my SOTS (State of the State) & Budget addresses, & plenty of times since, with a Reform Dividend now is not the time to raise taxes on Wisconsinites,” Walker tweeted last week.

Texting between the two GOP Alpha dogs has been even more caustic, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gleefully reported on Friday.

“As I recall, the debate started with the unprecedented discussion of starting with a new budget & the continued attacks on transportation. It would be odd if I didn’t defend my positions,” Walker wrote to Vos in text exchanges obtained by the newspaper through the state’s open records law.

“I think it actually started with the decision of your office to not really involve us before the process began unlike each of your other budgets. I found that’s strange but I respected that’s how you wanted to do it. So without giving us ownership of any thing in your budget it’s kind of hard for us just a rubber stamp it,” Vos responded.

“Unlike the last budget where we met with nearly every member in advance & got trashed,” Walker snapped back (Jason Stein’s and Patrick Marley’s turn of phrase).

In a statement this week, Walker thanked the budget-writing committee for “keeping the historic K-12 funding levels in place.” He did not note the transportation feud.

FOR TRANSPARENCY: Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the Joint Finance committee, said ‘non-fiscal’ proposals should be voted on separately to bring transparency and input to the process.

Several conservative lawmakers opted not to comment on the latest twist in the budget battle, but sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog they are worried that Republicans are squandering a golden opportunity to reform and limit government. All the bickering, they say, is an unneeded distraction.

After the November election, GOP leadership declared the party would go big and bold this legislative session, thanks to an Assembly majority not seen since the Eisenhower administration and a very comfortable Republican majority in the Senate.

Sen. Alberta Darling, said she refuses to be distracted from the business at hand, and she believes her Republican colleagues feel the same way.

“They don’t want to get into this personality battle,” the River Hills Republican said, calling such squabbles a “no-win” situation for those who want to get things done. “Gov. Walker is our governor, he’s been a good friend to us.”

Darling, who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, said it’s important for the sake of transparency and for committee involvement to take non-fiscal proposals out of the budget. Let them stand on their own in and up or down vote, she said. And many of the proposals have been separately introduced as legislation, Darling noted.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, voiced his disappointment that the full prevailing wage repeal proposal was removed as a non-fiscal item. Stroebel said removing such artificial, government-mandated wages is all about saving taxpayers money.

“The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance evaluation determined the repeal would save Wisconsin taxpayers tens of millions of dollars,” Stroebel said in a statement. “When budgeting, our priority should always be to pass policy reforms that save money through efficiencies. Prevailing wage does that.”

 While legislative leadership may negotiate many of the reform proposals back into the budget, what will conservatives have to give up in order to get them? The battle, budget watchers say, promises to be long and hard.

“Regardless of what happens during the forthcoming negotiations, today’s actions are a slap against Governor Walker, the conservative grassroots who put these legislators into office, and sound public policy,” Bott said. “Without significant improvement, it will be difficult for true conservatives to vote for this budget come June or July.”

House Education Committee votes against loosening up Act 46 mandate

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 15:23

NO MERCY: A bill that would have made it easier for school districts to buck Act 46, the school district consolidation law, was voted down by the House Education Committee on Thursday.

 

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A bill that would have offered greater flexibility for school district mergers was voted down by the House Education Committee on Thursday afternoon.

H.15 would have given more support and incentives for schools to choose an alternative district option to comply with the 2015 school merger law, Act 46. With alternative districts, school boards attempt to hold on to their current governance structures by convincing the Agency of Education that it is the best option for students and taxpayers.

Without the bill, the alternative district option is basically relegated to mere back-up plan status, with no incentives.

Donna Russo-Savage, legislative counsel to the Agency of Education, spoke out against H.15.

“The agency has some concerns. The governor supports flexibility, and I realize H.15 is an attempt to increase flexibility, but the governor is also very concerned about sustainability and affordability, and I think that H.15, at least in the way that it’s currently presented, probably would put a stop to any forward momentum,” she said.

A common theme behind the 9-2 vote against the bill was that it took the teeth out of Act 46.

“That video [shown about the benefits of mergers] was the perfect example of what can happen when communities drop their guards and look for ways to save money, expand education opportunities and generally improve the lives of everyone,” said state Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall.

State Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, also voted against the bill.

“We must not forget about why Act 46 exists,” she said, citing that education spending in Vermont has risen from around $800 million to $1.6 billion in just several years, while enrollment has dropped by over 20,000 students, or about 20 percent.

S.122 still hanging on

Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, who also voted against H.15, said the committee should instead support a different bill seeking increased flexibility for school district mergers, and which was approved in the Senate.

“We have on the table S.122 which allows for more flexibility for challenges moving forward,” she said.

David Kelley, clerk of the Hazen Union School Board, expressed disappointment in the committee’s vote and seeming preference for S.122.

“[H.15] was a lot better than S.122,” he told Vermont Watchdog. “It would have worked for the OSSU [Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union],” he said. “It would have allowed for a lot of flexibility in the creation of alternative structures.”

Hazen Union, part of the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, is comprised of several districts that have collectively decided to pursue an alternative district status. Kelley said the committee is not making their task any easier.

He added that S.122 does very little for the OSSU. “It just creates a few more boxes to accommodate a few more struggling districts. It basically makes the preferred structure a little bigger, but it doesn’t do anything to make the alternative structures any easier,” he said.

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

Vermont AG’s office admits it blocked public records release based on requesters’ politics

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 12:30

The Vermont Attorney General’s office chooses which public records requests it will honor after Googling requesters’ political leanings, an attorney admitted during oral arguments in a recent transparency case.

On June 13, 2016, attorneys for the Energy and Environment Legal Institute and Free Market Environmental Law Clinic sued Vermont’s attorney general for withholding public records related to AGs United for Clean Power’s multi-state investigation of ExxonMobil and research groups opposed to climate change policies.

GONE POLITICAL: Former Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell helped lead a multi-state inquiry into ExxonMobil and climate change skeptics while denying public records requests of groups he believed opposed the inquiry.

According to the complaint, E&E Legal Institute requested the communications of the coalition of 17 attorneys general led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell. The institute never received the records and has ongoing legal proceedings in Washington County Superior Court.

According to a transcript of March 28 oral arguments before Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout, Chief Assistant Attorney General William Griffin explained how the office decides which public records requests to honor.

“We get a request from EELI and so one thing we might consider is where are they — who are these people? Where are they going with this? And we Google them and we find, you know, coal or Exxon or whatever — and so we’re thinking this is — we better — we better give this some thought before we — before we share information with this entity,” Griffin said.

“Or it might be a news organization and we think, well, what are they going to do with it? Well, they’re going to publish it to the world. So that would be — I mean, that would be my mental impression and, you know, let’s exercise some caution. Is there some public interest in publishing this information at this time? Probably not.”

Matthew Hardin, the attorney for the plaintiff, appeared stunned by the admission.

“The broadness of the argument that the Attorney General is making, basically, that, under 1.6, everything is confidential, except for things that they selectively choose to disclose. Everything is exempt except what they choose to disclose, and now they say, because they’ve taken into consideration the best interests of the State of Vermont,” Hardin argued in response.

“And it’s now come out in oral argument that one of the things that they do to determine who’s entitled or who they will provide public records to is they do a Google search. And it turns out that, when you Google my clients, you might find out things like coal or Exxon,” he said. “So my clients don’t have rights under the Public Records Act because a Google search conducted by Attorney General’s employees says that they’re bad people, basically, and I just don’t think that’s what the law is. I believe that the law is neutral. I believe that it applies to all of the citizenry.”

AGs United for Clean Power has since largely disbanded, in part due to embarrassing public record releases. The group formed in March 2016 to coordinate investigations into whether fossil fuel companies misled investors and the public about climate change. Critics accuse the AG coalition of trying to stifle free speech.

RELATED: Vermont AG office tight-lipped about ExxonMobil investigations workgroup

Hardin told Vermont Watchdog the Vermont attorney general’s office conspired with other state attorneys general to refuse public records requests.

“This is sort of a case about a case,” Hardin said. “The state of Vermont signed a contract with a whole bunch of other states, including New York, and what that said was they were going to share documents with each other and they weren’t going to supply these documents in response to public records requests.”

He added that Vermont public records law doesn’t allow selective handling of public records requests, and even if it did, E&E Legal Institute would challenge it as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

“The legislature has made clear that it’s in the public interest of the state of Vermont … to provide records even though those records might be embarrassing,” he said. “And I think the attorney general is conflating and getting a little bit confused what are his personal interest versus what is the best interest for the state of Vermont.”

The Vermont Office of Attorney General did not respond to Watchdog’s requests for comment.

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

Congress considers dusting off long-dormant $300 million broadband map

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 11:15

DON’T TRUST THIS DATA: The National Broadband Map hasn’t been updated since 2014.

 

At a recent hearing discussing broadband infrastructure and draft legislation, House Democrats and Republicans alike pitched the idea of dusting off a national broadband map that cost $293 million to develop and has been dormant for the past three years.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said updating the map would better enable government to determine where broadband is currently flourishing or nonexistent.

“We must accurately collect and aggregate data to update the National Broadband Map,” Blackburn said at that March hearing of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, which she chairs.

But critics say the map was confusing and ineffective, and a taxpayer boondoggle to boot.

The searchable and interactive map, created to allow users to view broadband availability in every U.S. neighborhood, was a child of the American Recover and Reinvestment Act, better known as the 2009 economic stimulus. The $293 million was provided to 56 agencies across all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia to collect the data.

The end result wasn’t inspiring. DSL Reports noted at launch in 2011 the map seemed inaccurate, listing the wrong providers for a given area and overstating the options and speeds available in some cases. The outlet also pointed out prices weren’t listed, and blamed the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the Department of Commerce subdivision that administers the map, for giving in to pressure from private internet providers who didn’t want that information included in the map.

NTIA stopped updating the map after June 30, 2014, because Congress chose not to throw more money at the project in fiscal 2015. The NTIA notes on the map’s “about” page that updated information on broadband deployment can be viewed through the Federal Communication Commission’s semi-annual Form 477 data collection and annual broadband progress report.

Brent Skorup, research fellow in the technology policy program at the Mercatus Center, told Watchdog.org he can’t recall a time he used the National Broadband Map in his research.

“It’s anecdotal, but I haven’t heard of other researchers who have used it,” he added, pointing out how poorly functioning the map is and calling the initial cost “excessive.”

BLACKBURN: The Tennessee representative said Congress should provide funding to update the National Broadband Map.

He said, however, that if Congress decides to reboot the map, then lawmakers should look across the Atlantic, where the United Kingdom’s Office of Communication – its FCC, essentially – has developed an effective map that also offers speeds tests and shows mobile internet availability.

“I think this can be done well,” Skorup said.

He suggests a second effort would be better served by combining collection efforts into one organization rather than counting on dozens of state agencies with different policies and procedures.

“If you’re doing a national map, you probably only want one party collecting data and putting it together,” Skorup said.

The subcommittee discussed legislation correlated to President Donald Trump’s plan to spend more on infrastructure. Panel members generally agreed that expanding broadband to the unserved and underserved should be part of any spending package.

“People want broadband as much as new roads,” Blackburn said.

Private nonprofit, for-profit universities could soon get regulatory relief

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 10:05

Bad press, combined with federal rules and regulations disproportionately targeting the higher education alternatives, have taken their toll on nonprofit and for-profit universities in recent years — but that could soon change.

For-profit and private nonprofit colleges and universities offer career-building options separate from traditional public universities. Small class sizes, hands-on training and flexible schedules are common features designed to help students obtain degrees, practical jobs skills and employment-related certifications.

REGULATIONS: Private nonprofit and for-profit higher education schools have been subjected to harsh regulations, but that could be changing.

Student bodies also are diverse, and not just demographically. Active military members, veterans, adults at various stages of life, and those with jobs and children are more intentionally accommodated. As a result, enrollment has skyrocketed over the past two decades.

But regulatory change is afoot. In February, Arthur Keiser, chancellor and CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Keiser University, was named chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

The committee will make recommendations to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — a noted Florida education reformer — regarding accreditation and institutional eligibility for federal student financial aid.

Keiser University is a private nonprofit school with nearly 20,000 students enrolled across 18 Florida campuses. It offers 100 degrees at the doctoral through associate level, and employs 3,800 staff and faculty, according to its website.

Other large Florida private nonprofit universities include Nova Southeastern, St. Leo, Barry and the University of Miami. Together with Keiser, they serve about 87,000 students.

More recently, the U.S. Department of Education signaled a potential policy shift when it allowed additional time for postsecondary schools to appeal “gainful employment” determinations issued by the Obama administration in its final days.

“This action is taken to allow the Department to further review the (gainful employment) regulations and their implementation,” a statement from the acting assistant secretary for the federal student aid office said in March.

Billed as an accountability measure, outgoing Education Department officials released the first student loan debt-to-earnings rates on Jan. 9, pursuant to regulations finalized in 2014. At stake is access to federal student financial aid, the lifeline for for-profit and nonprofit career schools.

Industry representatives viewed the 11th-hour release as a parting shot from an administration overly hostile to higher education alternative career schools.

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a membership organization of 470 campuses offering career training programs, said the decision was “all about political motivations and harming institutions” and had “nothing to do with expanding higher education access and opportunity or creating sound public policy.”

“It is time to stop the war,” Gunderson said in a statement.

Schools now have until July 1 to submit appeals and comply with formerly enacted regulatory disclosure requirements.

The former administration regulatory actions were bolstered by high-profile disasters in the career training space in which it played an active role.

For-profit colleges made headlines when California-based Corinthian Colleges International closed or sold off more than 90 nationwide campuses in 2014 amid allegations of falsified job-placement data and predatory lending.

Last year, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused ITT Tech of pushing high-cost predatory loans on vulnerable students. The school closed after DOE required it “to boost its cash reserves,” and ultimately cut off access to federal student aid.

The industry also has received negative publicity for high student loan default rates, which some scholars say is on par with public universities when comparing similar student body demographics.

Federal gainful employment regulation

The federal gainful employment regulation is supposed to protect students and taxpayers from dishonest career programs that don’t deliver enough post-graduate earnings to justify tuition costs, and thereby student loan debt.

According to the DOE, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at private nonprofit and public institutions prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.”

“That is a high bar in a global economy known for not only job redundancy, but also radical sector disruption, often before a career school grad has earned his or her associate’s or bachelor’s,” contends Forbes education author James Marshall Crotty.

It also singles-out for-profit career schools, and to a lesser extent private nonprofit schools, as their students overwhelmingly depend on financial aid. Legally, for-profit institutions can receive up to 90 percent of their funding through federal Title IV student aid programs. Private nonprofit schools can receive 100 percent.

Cutting off Title IV student loans and grants would effectively bankrupt the schools.

Industry groups are looking to the Trump administration to relieve existential pressures imposed through harsh evaluation standards embedded in the framework of the Obama-era regulations.

Under the gainful employment rule, colleges whose graduates have an average annual loan repayment rate of less than 8 percent of their total earnings, or less than 20 percent of discretionary earnings, will receive a passing grade for their gainful employment program.

A graduate repayment rate between 8 percent and 12 percent of total earnings, or between 20 percent and 30 percent of discretionary earnings, is labeled “the zone.” Repayment rates above 12 percent of total earnings, or 30 percent of discretionary earnings, is considered failing.

If a college registers two failing grades in any consecutive three-year period, it loses all federal Title IV student aid. Four consecutive years of the zone also will lead to a loss of all federal student aid funding — a death sentence.

According to the Jan. 9 press release from the DOE, over 800 programs serving hundreds of thousands of students failed the Obama administration’s accountability standards, and an additional 1,239 programs are in jeopardy of failing. Ninety-eight percent were programs offered by for-profit colleges.

The concentrated figures appear to be evidence of what many critics have characterized as a biased regulatory crackdown.

“There is no for-profit that hasn’t had an investigation or lawsuit action,” said Eric Juhlin, CEO of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, at a Cato Institute panel discussion in Washington, D.C., two weeks after the November election.

“The allegations alone are so damaging that those institutions will oftentimes pay whatever is necessary to resolve that [and] move it forward just to get it out of the press,” Juhlin said.

Neal McCluskey, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, said the previous administration placed an “unfair focus” on for-profits and “somewhat of a demonization to the exclusion of looking at all sectors.”

“It’s not like there aren’t a lot of problems in for-profit higher education, because there are. There’s good reason to scrutinize that sector,” he said. “But there’s good reason to scrutinize all sectors.”

The Obama administration first unveiled its gainful employment proposal back in 2010, before the implosions of Corinthian College and ITT Tech. One year later, Keiser University switched from a for-profit institution to a private nonprofit university.

Composite scoring

A related, but entirely different holdover regulation, is set to take effect July 1.

Known as composite scoring, new financial health rules will soon be applied to nonprofit and for-profit colleges and universities across the country. Public universities, backed by the full faith and credit of their respective states, are not subject to composite score tests.

A composite score will signify the overall financial health of the higher education institutions along a scale of -1.0 to 3.0. A score of 1.5 or higher is considered financially responsible. A score of 1.0 to 1.4 is still financially responsible but invites oversight from DOE, including cash monitoring.

Schools with scores of less than 1.0 are considered financially irresponsible and can only participate in federal student financial aid programs under a provisional certification.

Sixty-five nonprofit institutions currently fall into the failing category, according to the National Association of College and Business Officers. The Washington, D.C.-based postsecondary advocacy group says an additional 62 private nonprofits are in the 1.0 to 1.4 range.

“NACUBO and other associations have long questioned (the Department of Education’s) methodology in calculating the composite scores,” the organization explained in a statement this week.

It’s not yet clear how the Trump administration will address the Obama-era regulations, but the options are clear: stay the course, rollback unnecessary overreach or effectively scrap the new rules altogether.

According to the Department of Education, composite financial score ratings, like the gainful employment rule, “is not a reflection of the quality of education at a given school.”

William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at wpatrick@watchdog.org and @WmPatFL.

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