Watchdog.org

Subscribe to Watchdog.org feed
The Government Watchdog
Updated: 9 hours 19 min ago

Vermont governor supports deporting some illegal aliens

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 09:01
Part 11 of 11 in the series Sanctuary Policies

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said he would consider deporting some criminal aliens residing in Vermont illegally.

The statement represents a modest change in the governor’s approach to illegal immigration, which has been at odds with the Trump administration’s policy and executive orders.

ILLEGAL ALIENS: Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, who has been in opposition to President Trump’s immigration policy, said on Thursday that he would deport illegals in the state with “egregious” criminal records.

Scott expressed concerns about illegal aliens convicted of violent crime and DUIs, saying they represent a potential threat to the safety of other residents. However, Scott was unable to provide either a clear definition of what justifies an illegal immigrant’s deportation or the number of alien residents that should be deported.

“If you’re convicted of criminal activity, I think you should be deported,” Scott said. “[But] I will clarify… [I am speaking of] egregious crimes.”

On March 28, Scott signed into law S.79 , a bill crafted to shield illegal immigrants from “compulsory collection of personally identifying information, or dissemination of that information for purposes of establishing a mandatory federal registry or database.”

Immigration experts have told Watchdog that concealing data about illegal immigrants could cause Vermont to lose federal dollars it receives to support a variety of programs, including law enforcement.

RELATED: Hiding illegal resident identities from police could cost Vermont federal funds

Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s communications director, told Vermont Watchdog that “our understanding is that our state policies are compliant with federal law and, therefore, there would not be a justification for withholding federal funds.”

Vermont Watchdog has reported that among the characteristics the state wants hidden from federal immigration enforcement officers are immigration status, national origin, religion, race and color. But, following Scott’s statement on Thursday, it is uncertain how deportation in Vermont can occur without some state officials revealing the status of criminal immigrants in contradiction to the spirit of S.79.

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

Experts warn no good options as Scott moves to shut down Vermont Health Connect

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 08:26

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott announced that his administration is preparing to move away from Vermont Health Connect, the state’s insurance marketplace that has cost taxpayers over $200 million.

“We’re looking to bring a proposal forward before the next legislative session … [and hope to move] away from VHC by next January,” the governor told reporters at his weekly press conference.

PULL THE PLUG: Gov. Phil Scott, left, inherited the troubled Vermont Health Connect from former Gov. Peter Shumlin, center, who refused to pull the plug on the exchange and left his successor to clean up the mess.

While the governor has not released detailed information about the changes, he claims the proposal will be an innovative plan “others throughout the country could take a look at and follow.”

Scott inherited VHC from the Shumlin administration. The insurance marketplace failed multiple benchmarks set by Gov. Peter Shumlin, yet the former governor refused to pull the plug.

The marketplace has likely cost more than $200 million, though the exact figure is not certain due to the state’s failure to report expenses, a violation of federal law. Despite the continued investment in the health exchange, workers still have to process changes of information by hand, and customers remain frustrated.

Scott said his decision was based on the health care reform slowdown from lawmakers in Washington as well as recent security breeches, including the disclosure of social security numbers online through the online system. “ This is a new world for us. [Data breeches aren’t] going to subside. This is going to intensify,” Scott said.

But health care experts tell Watchdog that Scott has few good options, including his idea of merging marketplaces with states like Connecticut to stabilize the system and share costs.

Robert Graboyes, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, says the logistics that caused the plan to fail apply to other health care proposals thrown out by Republicans.

“State officials, especially insurance commissioners, are highly protective of their turfs,” Graboyes told Watchdog.

Graboyes said the state also would have to mediate legal battles constantly, such as how to make rates and insurer regulations the same for each state. Even consumer complains, he added, would become more complex to manage.

“The logistical conundrums this idea presents underlines one big reason I am deeply skeptical of conservatives’ favorite reform idea — buying and selling health insurance across state lines,” he said.

“My guess is the state’s real option is to follow the example of Oregon: close the state exchange and accept the federal healthcare.gov website as the state’s exchange. There are costs involved, but there are no costless options.”

In December, a state-commissioned independent review of VHC advised against joining the federal exchange due to costs and lack of ease. However, those findings may lack objectivity since the group conducing the study, Strategic Solutions, is often hired to fix state exchanges.

When Nevada transitioned to the federal exchange in 2014, lawmakers estimated the change would cost about $20 million. That is roughly half the cost of annual VHC operational costs. However, the transition would likely cost more due to penalties written into the Affordable Care Act relating to states pulling out of state exchanges.

Additional problems keeping Vermont from the federal exchange are that health policies have less flexibility and are extremely dependent on federal funding.

Michael Cannon, director of health care policy at the Cato Institute, says that it is not possible for states to opt out of both a state and federal exchange.

“There really is nothing that states can do to fix Obamacare’s problems,” he told Watchdog. “All Obamacare provisions apply in all states, regardless of what the state does.”

The failed exchanges of Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon, and Nevada collectively cost taxpayers $733 million. Vermont Health Connect may add millions to lost taxpayer dollars spent on state exchanges.

Cybersecurity audit finds students can access obscene material on school computers

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 05:00

BUSTED: A cybersecurity audit by the Mississippi State Auditor’s office found objectionable material or possible access to objectionable material on a survey of 150 computers from nine school districts.

 

There could be more than just homework on your child’s school-issued laptop or tablet, according to a recent cybersecurity audit report released by the Mississippi State Auditor’s office.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s office found 20 percent of the 150 laptop and desktop computers from nine school districts “showed evidence that that students were able to access explicit material on school-issued devices.” Worse yet, 86 percent of the computers surveyed from seven middle schools, and 82 percent of devices analyzed from 11 high schools, found objectionable material such as pornography.

The report said the districts’ filtering systems were ineffective at filtering inappropriate material, which is a violation of the Children’s Internet Protection Act. That federal law mandates that schools and libraries participating in the federally-supported E-rate program block and filter internet access that is obscene or harmful to minors.

Several school districts in the state — such as the Tupelo and Clinton school districts — issue laptops and tablets to students under the One to One Digital Learning Initiative for use on their studies, and allow students to access the internet, digital course materials and books. Some of these districts, including the Clarksdale Municipal School District, received federal grants to provide each student with a computer or tablet.

According to the report, the nine districts didn’t enforce internet safety and acceptable use policies. In particular, they didn’t ensure that technology protection measures — such as web filters — were operational and effective. Also, one of the districts didn’t maintain filtering for when students take their computers home.

The auditor’s office said since it was a blind review, the identity of the districts with the compromised computers and monitoring systems won’t be revealed.

The report recommended that the Mississippi Department of Education should do the following:

  • Help districts with alternative solutions to evaluate the effectiveness of their monitoring apparatus.
  • Establish uniform policies for all districts on monitoring and filtering of student internet use.
  • Enact a policy requiring districts to monitor school-issued devices off school grounds with substantial penalties for non-compliance.

The OSA also suggested that districts should regularly test their monitoring systems and inform parents with tips on how to keep their children safe online.

The MDE says it will continue to provide assistance to districts so they can remain compliant with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

“The MDE provides technical assistance to districts upon request to help districts implement best practices. We will continue to provide technical assistance in the area of internet security,” MDE spokesperson Patrice Guilfoyle told Mississippi Watchdog.

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

Johnson, Baldwin on the Gorsuch ‘judicial war’

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 23:03

MADISON, Wis. – While the media at large went nuclear on the “nuclear option” descriptor Thursday, Wisconsin’s senators defended – from their perspectives – what was and what’s expected to be in the Judge Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination saga.

JUDICIAL WAR OF WORDS: Sens. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin weigh in on trying times in the Senate.

Looking to quickly break an unprecedented Democrat filibuster, Senate Republicans voted to lower the 60-vote threshold to a simple majority to forward President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

Dems were apoplectic, blasting the GOP for changing the way the more deliberative Senate traditionally does business; in essence, checking the minority party’s ability to stall. The so-called “nuclear option” is precisely what Democrats in 2013 sought and used to advance President Barack Obama’s executive and lower court judicial nominees in recent years. But the option was thought to be off limits for Supreme Court nominees.

Republicans had had enough, and moved to end the first-ever partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee just as it was getting started.

“This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “And it cannot and will not stand. There cannot be two sets of standards: one for nominees of the Democratic president and another for the nominees of Republican presidents.”

Minority Leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who lead the opposition movement, said the responsibility for changing the rules will fall on Republicans’ shoulders.

“They had other choices,” he said. “They have chosen this one.”

A final confirmation vote on the nominee is set for Friday.

Gorsuch, a widely respected appeals court judge for the 10th Circuit, is expected to fill the seat vacated more than a year ago by the death of conservative stalwart Justice Antonin Scalia.

Here’s what Wisconsin’s U.S. senators had to say about the political smoke and fire inside and outside the Senate chamber.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison:

“The people of Wisconsin want an impartial and independent Supreme Court justice who will make decisions that protect the constitutional rights and freedoms of all Americans – not stand for corporate special interests. I have deep concerns about Judge Gorsuch’s troubling record of ruling against disabled students, including a ruling that was so far out of the mainstream the Supreme Court unanimously overturned it, as well has his rulings against workers and against women’s reproductive health care. I also believe that we must have a Supreme Court justice who will serve as a check on the Executive Branch. Based on his record and the many questions he has chosen to leave unanswered, I don’t have confidence Judge Gorsuch would be that justice and I oppose his confirmation to our highest court.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh:

“Judge Gorsuch is a highly qualified, mainstream judge who will apply the law, not act as a superlegislator. He is exactly the kind of high integrity jurist needed on the Supreme Court.  Unfortunately, most Democrat senators, including Senator Baldwin, attempted to obstruct the will of American and Wisconsin.”

Commentary: Refusing Medicaid expansion frustrates dependency democracy crowd

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 16:03

MADISON, Wis. – State Rep. Peter Barca fired off a press release Wednesday ripping Gov. Scott Walker for his “failure” to take all of that “free” federal Medicaid money a few years back.

THIS IS WHAT SOCIALISM LOOKS LIKE: Here’s a spoiler alert: Medicaid expansion is paid for by taxpayers somewhere.

Barca’s a politician. It’s what he does. And as the Assembly minority leader of a diminished Democratic Party facing irrelevancy, outrage-laden press releases is about all he can do.

The Kenosha Democrat quotes a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report (completed at his request) that finds Walker’s refusing to drag the state into the costly Obama-led Medicaid expansion campaign will “cost Wisconsin taxpayers” nearly $700 million by the end of this budget cycle. By June 30, 2020, “this failure” will cost Wisconsin more than $1 billion, according to the press release.

“It makes little sense to leave federal money on the table as this puts Wisconsin taxpayers on the hook to make up the difference,” Barca barked.

Of course, what the liberal lawmaker leaves out – as many liberals are wont to do – is the fact that the money didn’t just magically appear on the table. It was taken from taxpayers everywhere. And taxpayers in the 32 states that took the Medicaid bribe are finding out they are on the hook for an increasing share of the expansion.

But beyond the money is the bigger battle of ideas: The left’s fervent belief in the ever-expanding role of government and the right’s maxim that the government which governs best is that which governs least.

Ultimately, it’s a battle between self-governance and dependency democracy.

As an Investor Business Daily editorial late last year put it, “Obamacare made an offer few states could refuse: Expand Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of poverty – including able-bodied childless adults – and the federal government will cover 100 percent of the costs for three years.” Otherwise, stick with the 58 percent federal share of Medicaid coverage, big federal said, and go it alone, Wisconsin.

Walker said, thanks but no thanks. His administration turned down the money and opted to prioritize state spending to expand Wisconsin’s Medicaid program, known as BadgerCare Plus. Tom Evenson, the governor’s spokesman, says the decision had paid off.

“Our state ranks as one of the best states in the nation for health care coverage, and we did it here without taking the Obamacare expansion,” Evenson wrote in an email. “Thanks to Governor Walker’s reforms, for the first time everyone is covered with insurance and our taxpayers did not have to buy into the uncertainty (that) surrounds Obamacare.”

Walker’s recommendation, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature, expanded BadgerCare eligibility for childless adults below the poverty level and cut in half the income eligibility ceiling for parents – from the previous cap of 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal plan demanded an income threshold of at least 138 percent of FPL.

Adults above the fixed poverty levels still are eligible for the expansive federal subsidies baked into the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which has turned out to be much less affordable than advertised.

Walker argued the Obamacare Medicaid offer was one Wisconsin should refuse because, like so many other federally mandated programs, the Medicaid expansion would be unsustainable. States taking the Medicaid bribe are now learning the residual costs of “free money.”

Beginning this year, receiving states will have to kick in 5 percent of the costs for the new Medicaid enrollees. In coming years, it will be 10 percent. Walker and fellow conservatives jaded by the bad history of unfunded federal mandates are betting it will eventually be much more. Those states are poised to see their Medicaid costs climb by nearly 6 percent this year, compared with 4 percent for Wisconsin and the other states that said no, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

At least eight of the expansion states are pushing new taxes and fees on insurance providers to cover those costs, according to the Kaiser Foundation. Sock it to the wealthy insurance companies, right? Not so much. Those costs are either passed on to consumers or they will no longer be countenanced by insurers that are escaping the untenable government-influenced markets. Other states plan to tap into their general funds to cover the rising costs. Those funds, of course, are filled by taxpayers.

“In other words, states that expanded Medicaid will either have to boost health costs, raise taxes or cut spending to cover this ObamaCare ‘freebie.’ Given that Medicaid is already swamping state budgets, this will not be good news,” the Investor Business Daily editorial asserted.

Indeed. Take a look at Wisconsin’s neighbor, which saw its health care insurance markets on the verge of collapse.

“When the Obamacare Medicaid expansion was offered, Governor Walker believed it would be unsustainable in the future, and that if Wisconsin had bought into the program it would be risky for taxpayers,” said Evenson, Walker’s spokesman. “What transpired in Minnesota suggests we were right. Insurers are leaving Minnesota’s exchange and it will now cost Minnesota taxpayers $310 million to help offset the massive increase in premiums to those who had enrolled.”

Barca is correct in saying that Wisconsin could grab a total of $2.7 billion by 2019, had it fully expanded BadgerCare. And, as the author of the fiscal bureau report notes, even when the federal coverage drops from 100 percent to 90 percent, 90 is still better than the current 58 percent.

But Barca paints his picture without a background, that the federal money Wisconsin has “missed out” on is cash grabbed from taxpayers of every state. And the hundreds of billions spent is only exacerbating a $20 trillion U.S. debt.

Last year the Congressional Budget Office raised its 10-year cost projection for the Medicaid expansion by $136 billion. Somebody is paying for that.

As Walker noted ad nauseam during the last presidential campaign cycle, liberals like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama measure success on how many people are dependent on the government and the tax dollars that keep it going.

“There’s a reason we celebrate July 4 instead of April 15,” Walker likes to say, comparing Independence Day with Tax Day.

While the sentiment seems a disconnect from Wisconsin’s reliance on myriad federal program subsidies of all kinds (Obamacare included), the philosophy is as right as rain.

“In America, we celebrate independence from government, not dependence on it,” Walker has said. “It’s time for government to get out of the way.”

Widely divergent campus sexual assault bills move forward in two states

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 13:23

DUE PROCESS: Lawmakers in Georgia appear poised to pass a bill that would require colleges to report sexual assaults to the police.

Bills relating to campus sexual assault in Maryland and Georgia have moved forward after previously appearing to have stalled in each state’s legislature.

In Maryland, a bill that would require K-12 students be taught the policy of affirmative consent during sexual education classes received an “unfavorable report” from the state’s House Ways and Means committee and was subsequently withdrawn.

The Maryland victory was short-lived, however. A separate bill, HB 1560 that requires children as young as 10 receive affirmative consent training passed the Maryland House of Representatives in mid-March.

Affirmative consent effectively turns sex into a contractual rather than passionate or romantic act, requiring each person involved in sexual activity to continuously ask for permission to engage in heightened levels of activity throughout the event. Affirmative consent does not prohibit non-verbal communication, but as it can often be ambiguous (and later reinterpreted), it puts people at greater risk of an accusation if they don’t rely on verbal communication.

Even if each person engages in this type of question-and-answer session, there’s no way to prove one followed the policy. It still remains a “he said, she said” situation, and as usually happens on college campuses, the accuser’s (almost always a woman) statement is given more weight. Further, accusers who don’t follow affirmative consent do not face sexual assault hearings themselves, meaning that the person ultimately responsible for asking for constant permission is retroactively the person who gets accused.

In Georgia, a measure that would have required campus accusations of felony sexual assault to be handled by the police passed the House earlier this year, but died in the state Senate.

But in late March, all but one provision of the measure was incorporated into an unrelated piece of legislation as a substitute amendment, the College Fix reported.

The one provision not included would have required schools to proceed with an investigation only if the accuser participates. Under current law, accused students in Georgia can face disciplinary hearings without being able to confront their accuser.

Georgia lawmakers supporting the bill are responding to a system created at universities that requires a lower standard of proof and denies due process to the accused. It’s a system that’s bad for both the accused and the accuser.

 

Currently, the worst thing a college can do is expel a student, which punishes the innocent while putting actual rapists out on the street to harm others. This is, as attorney Adam Goldstein of the Student Press Law Center noted, the “best case scenario” for colleges, but the “worst case outcome of the criminal justice process.”

The best thing for victims is to lock away rapists, but that would require police involvement, evidence, and a narrower and more realistic definition of sexual assault, the point of the Georgia legislation.

As Trump pushes corporate tax cut, CBO notes the U.S. has world’s highest rate

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 10:28

As President Trump pushes for a reduction of the corporate tax rate, the Congressional Budget Office recently released a report showing that the U.S. rate is among the highest in the world.

POMERLEAU: CBO report is evidence the U.S. needs to cut its corporate income tax rate.

The Tax Foundation said that discourages investment and encourages profit sharing.

The CBO report noted the United States’ top federal statutory corporate income tax rate is 35 percent, and has been so since 1993. When including state taxes, the top rate is 39.1 percent, making America’s rate higher than any other G20 country. Japan is the closest at 37 percent.

America fared better — if only slightly — when examining average and marginal corporate tax rates. The average corporate tax rate, a measure of the total amount of corporate taxes a company pays as a share of its income, was 29 percent in the U.S., ranking the nation third. The effective marginal corporate tax rate, a measure of a corporation’s tax burden on returns from marginal investments, was an estimated 19 percent, or fourth highest among the G20.

Kyle Pomerleau, director of federal projects at the Tax Foundation, said these high rates are a reason why many think the U.S. should reform its corporate income tax. He noted that multi-national companies can shift profits out of the U.S. to reduce their tax burdens.

“If the next dollar of profits is taxed at the statutory rate, companies have an incentive to locate their profits in countries with lower statutory tax rates,” he said.

Pomerleau pointed out, too, that companies are more willing to pursue investments in countries with lower marginal tax rates, which usually mean those nations allow more deductions for new investments.

“The lower the marginal tax rate on new investment, the lower the pre-tax returns on those investments need to be to satisfy investors on an after-tax basis,” he said.

AT&T, for one, told analysts the company would make more investments in the U.S. if Trump successfully lobbied for the tax cut.

“We know at AT&T that if you saw tax rates move [lower] to 20 percent to 25 percent, we know what we would do — we would step up our investment levels,” Randall Stephenson, the company’s chief executive, said of a cut in the statutory rate.

But, like many politicians, Trump is finding his campaign promises — he vowed to reduce the rate to 15 percent several times during his presidential run — no easy feat. Insiders told the New York Times the target had been increased to 20 percent, but even that now seems unlikely, as a plan proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan to drop the figure to that number hinged on the repeal of Obamacare.

The Times pointed out a tax package that would include a cut in the corporate rate is likely to be as high as 28 percent — a number pushed by former President Obama the last few years of his presidency. That’s because it would take a rate that high to be deficit neutral after 10 years, as pointed out by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. A bill with a deficit neutral status would allow the Senate to pass it with a simple majority because the legislation would be considered as budget reconciliation.

Johnny Kampis reports on national issues for Watchdog.org. Contact him at jkampis@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

Voters choose Evers, $464.7 million in new bonding for schools

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 09:32

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Education was on the ballot in the spring election Tuesday. In addition to the election for the nonpartisan state Superintendent for Public Instruction, 44 school districts asked voters for more money to support education.

EVERS WINS EASILY: Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, an opponent of expanding private school vouchers won easily in Tuesday’s election with 70 percent of the vote.

Incumbent Superintendent Tony Evers easily defeated Lowell Holtz, the former superintendent of the Whitnall and Beloit school districts, with 70 percent of the vote. Evers was backed by teachers unions and received support from the Democratic Party. He has been critical of expanding private school vouchers.

Holtz was a supporter of private school vouchers and made opposition to Common Core standards an issue in the campaign. His campaign was hampered by allegations that he sought a position with the state Department of Public Instruction in exchange for dropping out of the race in favor of another candidate, John Humphries, who lost in the February primary election. Holtz’s campaign was also unable to match Evers’ television advertising expenditures.

On election night, Evers said he received bipartisan support for his campaign.

“I think there are Republicans who are supporting me out there,” Evers told the Associated Press. “They may not want to say it out loud.”

Holtz said the campaign gave him a platform to “raise serious issues regarding the condition of education in Wisconsin.”

“I wish Dr. Evers well in his new term, and I hope this campaign has broadened the way people view education reform in the State of Wisconsin,” Holtz said in a statement.

Wisconsin’s school districts had mixed results on ballot questions, with 40 of 65 referendums passing on Tuesday.

State law imposes limits on school district tax levying authority as a way to hold down property taxes. School districts can exceed the limits by asking voters to approve an increase through a referendum. Of the 36 referendums to exceed the state’s revenue limits, 24 passed.

The largest of the referendums to exceed the caps occurred in Green Bay. Voters approved, with 62.7 percent of the vote, an increase of $16.5 million over the revenue caps for 10 years.

In the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, voters rejected a request to exceed state revenue limits by $2.5 million each of the next five years. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the district wiped out $17.5 million in reserves over 10 years. The overspending included at least $14 million during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

School districts also may go to referendum to ask for bonding authority to borrow for construction or maintenance. Voters approved 16 of 29 of these referendums for a total of $464.7 million in new bonding.

In the Verona Area School District, voters approved nearly $183 million in bonding for capital improvements in two referendums. The larger bonding referendum, suported with 72.7 percent of the vote, will allow the district to spend $162.8 million on a new high school, the largest bonding referendum this year.

The second referendum, for $18.5 million in bonding, which passed with 60.8 percent of the vote, will allow the district to build an indoor swimming pool and two athletic fields at the high school. Voters approved another $2.29 million in increased spending over the state revenue caps every year to cover increased operational costs resulting from the expanded facilities.

The spending will be mitigated by an additional $140 million in additional tax revenue over the next 20 years from a now-closed tax incremental financing district, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. If the referendum for the new high school had not passed, property taxes would have decreased by $2.53 per $1000 in value. Instead, taxes will increase $.42 per thousand, a net change of $2.97 per $1000 or $742.50 for a $250,000 home.

SEE RELATED: ‘Informational materials?’ School districts spend more than $325,000 to advertise referendums

Meanwhile, the Arrowhead Union High School District referendum for $36.7 million in bonding for a campus-wide building improvement program was rejected by 62 percent of the voters.

This was the second referendum attempt by the school district to ask the voters for bonding authority in six months. In November, the district asked voters for $64.7 million in borrowing authority for renovations and construction. That referendum failed with 54.3 percent voting no. The district also asked for an additional $173,000 annually from the taxpayers for operational costs, and that referendum failed with 56 percent voting no.

A bill in the state legislature last year authored by Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, that would require a year between referendums failed to receive a floor vote.

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

Town clerk says Selectboard ‘on a power trip’ in alleged voter fraud case

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 09:08

ALLEGED VOTER FRAUD: Carol Easter, center, is a defendant in a case before the Vermont Superior Court that accuses her and others of participating in voter fraud. This week, she spoke out against two Selectboard members who are trying to exclude her husband, Lionel Easter, from the board. Lionel Easter is one of two board candidates awaiting a run-off election that has been postponed by a judge’s order.

VICTORY, Vt. — A Vermont town clerk at the center of a voter fraud lawsuit claims that two members of the local three-person Selectboard are “on a power trip” to get her.

The assertion came a week after Victory Town Clerk-Treasurer Carol Easter told Essex County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Mann that a security camera was used to spy on her. Easter, a defendant in a voter fraud case before the court, alleges that Selectboard member Walt Mitchell did the spying.

Easter told Vermont Watchdog she believes local officials are being “downright devious” and hounding her. She also said they are plotting to exclude her husband, Lionel Easter, from the board.

At a March 28 hearing, the court issued a temporary restraining order to stop a a scheduled April 5 Selectboard run-off election between incumbent Lionel Easter (Carol Easter’s husband) and Otis McKennistry. The pair deadlocked in a tie on Town Meeting Day, March 7.

Judge Mann cancelled the planned run-off election, claiming that the town’s voter checklist contains unqualified voters and non-residents. A new date for election will be set at a May 4 hearing.

Attorney Deborah Bucknam, representing plaintiff Tracey Martel, alleged in a March 21 complaint and mandamus petition that 18 defendants engaged in “massive voter fraud” by placing non-residents on the voter checklist. Martel, who ran against Carol Easter in the March 7 clerk and treasurer races and lost by fewer than four votes, is likely to seek her own re-vote.

A helping hand?

In addition to concerns about her management of the voter checklist, Carol Easter is accused of having helped a voter fill out a ballot during Town Meeting Day — an accusation she denied.

“I did not fill out a ballot for another voter,” Easter told Watchdog.

“The voter that is in question … sometimes has a hard time comprehending something, especially if it’s a long passage [of text]. … She asked me for help. She did not understand the questions and so I explained it to her. … She made up her own mind. I did not mark her ballot in any way.”

At last week’s court hearing, Easter said that the accusation of marking a ballot stems from images captured by an electronic camera in town hall, which supposedly shows her placing a mark on the voter’s ballot.

“That security camera was put in that building for safety purposes,” Easter said. “But [Selectman] Walt Mitchell … cut the lock off from the camera [cabinet] and put his own lock on, and would not let anybody get into that cabinet. Finally, he let my husband [Lionel Easter] in there one day and guess what: The user manual and the password are gone. That camera has been used to spy on me.”

“Harassing me”

The town clerk alleges that Selectboard members Mitchell and Walt Neborsky want her husband off the board.

“These two selectmen had a meeting in Montpelier with the town’s attorney Dan Richardson to discuss the run-off,” Carol Easter said. “My husband Lionel received a telephone call at 3 p.m. about this meeting being held at 10 a.m. the next day. Well, he’s on oxygen getting over a severe case of shingles, so he asked the men if he could phone-in to attend. Neborsky said ‘no.’ Now, according to state law, Lionel had a right to be a part of that meeting.”

She added that the Selectboard members’ actions showed a partisan support for run-off candidate McKinnistry, even before the re-vote can be rescheduled.

In response to another accusation from Bucknam’s complaint that Easter intentionally mishandled absentee ballots for political purposes, Carol Easter said her ballots were “on time and time stamped on a thumb drive.”

The town clerk told Vermont Watchdog that she had no personal or political axe to grind, or any reason to manipulate voters and the balloting process. “I get paid only a few dollars an hour for this position. I am in it for the taxpayer, not for personal advantage,” Easter said.

Walt Mitchell Mitchell and Otis McKinnistry did not return Watchdog’s request for comment.

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

Arizona undertakes sweeping reform of occupational licensing laws

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 07:25

This past week saw two major reforms for Arizona’s occupational licensing regime, which could kick off a lightening of the regulatory burden in the state.

On March 29, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order requiring all state licensing boards to report on their minimum requirements for obtaining an occupational license. Should those requirements exceed national averages, the order requires that boards justify them in “specific reference to potential harm to individual Arizonans.”

REGULATION: Gov. Doug Ducey signed off on two major reforms to Arizona’s occupational licensing regulations.

This was followed by an even more sweeping change on March 30, when Ducey signed SB 1437 into law.

Known as the Right to Earn a Living Act, the legislation restricts Arizona’s regulatory boards from issuing regulations which “on their face or in their effect limit in the entry into a profession or trade,” unless they can be shown necessary to the health and safety of Arizonans.

Taken together, these reforms represent a sweeping change to Arizona’s occupational licensing regime, which is considered one of the most burdensome in the nation.

The burden that occupational licensing places on individuals and the economy has become an increasingly salient and bipartisan issue in recent years. In 2012, the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, released an exhaustive report on the topic. Titled “License to Work,” the study found that occupational licensing laws in the U.S. were costing the country almost three million jobs and over $200 billion a year.

“[Occupational licensing] does this by preventing competition, by preventing people from working in a field,” said Paul Avelar, an attorney with Institute for Justice Arizona. “When you have fewer professionals in a field, you have higher prices for consumers.”

This conclusion was supported by a 2015 nationwide study on occupational licensing published by the Obama White House. This report found that a quarter of professions required some form of licensure, a five-fold increase since the 1950s, when only 5 percent of occupations needed a government permission slip.

The end result of this growth in professional regulation, according to the White House report, was to “raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities, and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across State lines.”

Arizona, despite its free market reputation, has proven particularly restrictive in terms of occupational licensing. The 2012 Institute for Justice report ranked Arizona the sixth most restrictive state in the country.

Most of this, Avelar says, is due to the sheer number of professions that Arizona has licensed. Some 64 low-to-moderate income professions in the Grand Canyon State require licenses, including even door repairmen and security alarm installers.

Arizona’s state regulatory boards, which are responsible for establishing licensing requirements, have been aggressive in how they use their authority. In one instance, a Tucson resident was investigated for offering free haircuts to the homeless without a license by the State Board of Cosmetology.

The board eventually backed down after Ducey sent a scathing letter calling for them to end their “outrageous” investigation. Ducey called the free haircuts “exactly the kind of citizenship we should be encouraging and celebrating.”

Indeed, Ducey has made reforming occupational licensing a major focus of his administration. His first action upon taking office in 2015 was to issue a moritorium on regulatory rulemaking by state agencies. This was followed by taking aim at Arizona’s licensing laws in his second State of the State address, where Ducey said the practice resulted in “a maze of bureaucracy for small business people looking to earn an honest living.”

“The state of Arizona actually licenses talent agents. I say let’s leave the job of finding new talent to Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani, not state government,” he said in the address.

That same year, Ducey worked closely with the Legislature on two bills that would have substantially reorganized the state’s healthcare licensing board. But as Watchdog previously reported, those efforts were frustrated when opposition from board members forced a withdrawal of one bill and amended another to the extent that Ducey vetoed it.

Since that initial defeat, momentum for reform has only grown.

At the beginning of the legislative session, Senator Barto, a Scottsdale-area Republican, introduced the aforementioned Right to Earn a Living Act, working in conjunction with the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank.

The purpose of that bill, according to Goldwater Institute attorney Jonathan Riches, is to shift the burden of justifying regulations off the citizen and onto the government. Riches said this would stop courts from “rubber-stamping impairments to getting a license.”

Riches also said he hopes the new judicial standards now applicable to occupational licensing will get regulators to think more about the impact of regulations.

SB 1437 encountered some opposition from Democrats, however. During the March 30 House session, state Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, fretted that requiring government to show a public health necessity for new regulations might to be too stringent a standard. Still, the House passed the bill by a 34-20 vote, and the governor signed it later that day.

Combined with Ducey’s order for a comprehensive review of state licensing regulation, Arizona could move from one of the most restrictive occupational licensing states to one of the freest.

Christian Britschgi is a reporter for Arizona Watchdog. Contact him at cbritschgi@watchdog.com and on Twitter @christianbrits.

Town votes again to table gun-range restrictions

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 04:23

WILLISTON, Vt. — For the second time this year, the Williston Selectboard had on its agenda an ordinance that would have substantially limited operations for the North Country Sportsman’s Club. And for the second time this year, the board voted to table the proposal.

Not quite as many orange vests filled up the room as in February, but enough hunters showed up to make their presence felt. And many wondered why the board was going over this well-trod ground again, especially since the parties are awaiting a Supreme Court decision on a suit the club filed against the town in mid-2015 over noise-ordinance citations.

FALSE ALARM: The Town of Williston has twice considered a sound ordinance that would have substantially limited operations of the North Country Sportsmen’s Club.

“There’s a lot of folks out there wonder why this is coming now when almost certainly there is going to be a Vermont Supreme Court decision within the next month,” said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “It’s causing a lot of questions about why this is going on tonight.”

Town Manager Richard McGuire addressed that concern at the start of the meeting.

“If the board makes a decision on this tonight, then you may not have to make a change after that [Supreme Court] decision is made,” he said. “Of course, there’s no certainty on that. the Supreme Court decision could change the nature of what the rules are. If the amendments are not adopted, then we are guaranteed going to have to make a change.”

Hughes saw no reason to act before they had to.

“I would suggest that the board wait and see what the Supreme Court comes down with and not lend itself into a lot of speculation as to why you are doing this at this late hour,” Hughes said.

Bob Otty, president of the North Country Sportsmen’s Club board, also spoke, telling the Selectboard that if the town wishes to continue to have constructive dialogue with the club on how to resolve the matter, it would be in everyone’s best interest to wait on the court.

“We’ve been around and around on this and I think there are additional comments that could be made but they may be a moot point depending on what the board’s inclination is for this evening,” he said.

The outcome could have implications for towns and ranges across the state, Hughes said, because lying at the heart of the dispute is the Vermont Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights.

“To regulate or prohibit the use or discharge, but not possession of, firearms within the municipality or specified portions thereof, provided that an ordinance adopted under this subdivision shall be consistent with section 2295 of this title and shall not prohibit, reduce, or limit discharge at any existing sport shooting range, as that term is defined in 10 V.S.A. § 5227,” reads the relevant statute, 24 V.S.A. § 2291. “Nor shall this ordinance apply to the discharge of firearms on any existing sport shooting range, as defined in 10 V.S.A., section 5227.”

Hughes added that Williston has adopted its own firearm discharge ordinance for gun range operations that models the language of the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights.

While the Selectboard’s decision to table the proposal came after about 10 minutes of discussion, there was still some impassioned statements in defense of the value of the range to the community. John Vibber, club member and former board member, tried to persuade board members that they should look at the club as an asset, not a liability.

“Given what we see elsewhere, should we take our culture for granted?” he said. “If you lose it, you won’t get it back. Hopefully we can maintain this culture if our next generation of gun owners continues to get their gun safety and proficiency instructions from parents and relatives as well as from 4-H and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts alike, but they will not be safe shooters from those lessons alone. Maintaining safety and proficiency comes from continued practice.”

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

SSA whistleblowers ask, where’s the justice?

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 16:24
Part 60 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – Now that a federal investigation has found multiple examples of misconduct and abuse at a Wisconsin Social Security Administration office, some employees who blew the whistle have one question: When will justice be served?

WHISTLEBLOWER QUESTION: Two months after federal investigators substantiated many of their misconduct allegations at a Madison Social Security Administration office, whistleblowers want to know what, if anything, will happen to the wrongdoers.

In February, SSA’s Office of the Inspector General released a fact sheet on its lengthy investigation into the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. Among other incidents of misconduct, investigators found that the director of the scandal-plagued hearing office used official leave and sick leave to gamble at an area casino, while a group supervisor got paid a full day’s wage to watch a Green Bay Packers football game at Lambeau Field.

The fact sheet states the law was broken at the Madison ODAR facility and that managers held whistleblowers to significantly stricter standards than other staff.

“An Office of Inspector General investigation found serious problems, including time and attendance fraud, and showed that two whistleblowers in the office experienced disparate treatment from other workers,” U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson wrote SSA’s acting commissioner. “I request information about how SSA will address these problems.”

As of last week, the agency had yet to comply, once again asking for more time to respond.

Johnson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which in June launched an inquiry into the Madison and Milwaukee ODAR offices.

OIG investigators found that the employee who took in the Packers game on taxpayer time, former Madison ODAR group supervisor Wayne Gentz according to multiple sources close to the situation, “violated federal law, federal regulations, and the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”

Former Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz “used official and sick leave to gamble at an area casino,” Johnson wrote. “The OIG found this conduct violated federal law and federal regulations.”

Hodorowicz, accused of leading a “culture of corruption and cover-up” at the Madison office, was removed from the office and relieved of her management duties in August amid the OIG investigation.

Gentz, too, was removed from the office and his position.

Both remain on the agency payroll, working for SSA’s Chicago-based Region 5 remotely from their homes, according to sources.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers claim they continue to be retaliated against, some forced to fight for telework accommodations necessitated by their declining health. Those health problems, they say, are directly related to the stress they have experienced in their long and painful whistleblower odyssey.

“Are they (Gentz and Hodorowicz) having to fight to work from home?  Laura should have actually been fired but there she is, sitting in the comfort of her own home, collecting six figures,” one SSA whistleblower said.

Asked about the status of the Madison ODAR managers, Doug Nguyen, SSA regional spokesman, said what he has often said, that the agency cannot comment on confidential personnel matters.

“The agency is committed to ensuring a workplace free of harassment and retaliation for all employees,” Nguyen said in an email response to Wisconsin Watchedog. “We are working proactively in that regard.”

Amid multiple federal investigations last fall, two top administrators for the Chicago region said they would be stepping down. They haven’t.

In October, it was announced that  Sherry D. Thompson, chief administrative law judge for SSA’s Region 5, and Assistant Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Rabaut would be resigning from their leadership positions at the end of 2016.

As of this week, Thompson and Rabaut remained at their posts. Nguyen did not comment on the administrators’ status.

At the time, Gregory Senden, a representative for the government union that represents many SSA employees, sent an email to several staff members advising of the changes.

“Hopefully the new leadership that is chosen will be effective and professional, and willing to work with AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) to improve the morale of ODAR employees and improve service to the public that we serve,” Senden wrote in the email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Deadly Delays, here.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Treasurer: ‘Glaring example of stupidity’ to cost taxpayers $90 million in rent payments

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 14:57

MADISON, Wis. – The state official who has campaigned on eliminating his own position says he wants to provide a greater public service to taxpayers before he goes.

WASTE SPOTLIGHT: State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk in the coming weeks intends to shine a light on wasteful state leases.

In the weeks ahead, State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk says he plans on issuing periodic press releases detailing  costly state property leases.

And the treasurer has a doozy to start.

Adamczyk asserts the state is on track to waste $90 million on one “bad” lease over its 20-year extended life.

“This is a glaring example of stupidity,” the treasure said of the sprawling Wisconsin Department of Corrections headquarters, currently leased at north of $5 million a year.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in December 2015, the lease will cost taxpayers more than $51 million over a decade, between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2021, according to a copy of the lease.

That’s nearly three times the $14.38 million assessed value of the 14-acre property in 2015.

The state will pay nearly $1.1 million more in escalating lease payments over the period, with annual payments rising from $4.6 million in fiscal 2012 to $5.697 million in fiscal year 2021.

The  last-minute deal — some say a “sweetheart deal” —  was orchestrated between then-Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration and a Madison real estate firm.

MIG Commercial Real Estate signed the five-year extension on Dec. 22, 2010, just days before Democrat Doyle’s second term ended and his successor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, took office.

But Adamczyk says the suspect stewardship of taxpayer money goes back more than a decade before, to the end of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson’s tenure.

In 2000, the DOC and the Department of Revenue were each in need of more than 200,000 square feet of office space. State leasing agents took two very different approaches to meet those needs.

The state constructed a new building for Revenue, at a cost of $30.1 million. The total bonded cost was around $45 million. That property, Adamczyk noted, was built to state specifications and constructed to last half a century. He said the state will own the building outright in the next few years.

State leasing agents opted to rent space for Corrections. Rent payments began in July 2001. Over the 20-year life of the lease, total rent payments are expected to hit $90 million.

“What does this mean for us taxpayers?  Well, it’s not good,” Adamczyk said in the press release. “Over those two decades from about 2000 until 2020 the DOC building will cost taxpayers about TWICE as much as the DOR building for similar square footage. What’s worse, at the end of the lease in 2021 the state will not own the DOC building and will need to either continue renting or build a new facility.”

Bradley L. Hutter, president of MIG, told Wisconsin Watchdog in December 2015 that the extended agreement has been a good deal for taxpayers. The deal did provide the state with hundreds of thousands of dollars in allowances, including carpet and lighting upgrades. But the bigger savings came from the ability of a far-flung Department of Corrections to consolidate and put all of its administrative operations under one roof, the developer said.

PRICEY PROPERTIES: Lawmakers say the state’s Madison-centric focus on agency building sites has driven up lease costs, ultimately paid for by taxpayers.

Adamczyk said spending $90 million on rent payments for a Department of Corrections building with nothing to show for it is a “terrible deal for taxpayers.”

An official with the Department of Administration, the agency that negotiated the deal, agreed the 2010 lease extension was “not a good deal for taxpayers.”

DOA spokesman Steve Michels said that under Walker’s leadership, the Department of Administration has focused on reducing the state’s overall office footprint and consolidating agencies to state-owned buildings.

“In fact, the Madison Master Plan and construction of the New Hill Farms building reduces by 15 the number of state leases in privately owned buildings scattered throughout Madison, saving taxpayers more than $3 million a year in rent, maintenance and energy costs,” Michels said in an email to Wisconsin Watchdog.

He said the DOC lease is set to expire in June 2021. What happens next is on the table.

“As part of our long-term planning, we are gathering space needs and requirements in order to complete a request for proposal.  The competitive proposal is projected to be released in spring of 2018,” he said.

Rent control

Fiscal hawks like Adamczyk say there’s a long way to go to roll back leasing agreements that are soaking taxpayers.

Lawmakers have proposed legislation requiring more oversight of big-ticket government leases. A bill authored by state Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, and  state Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, would require DOA to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before signing a lease. And the bill requires the secretary of the Department of Administration to sign the contract. All leases totaling more than $500,000 must be submitted for a 14-day “passive review” by the Joint Committee on Finance.

Another bill, by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, and Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, aims to change a Madison-centric point of view when it comes to state agency real estate.

The measure would require the DOA to identify the “most appropriate and cost efficient locations to place an agency when securing or renewing a lease.” Leasing agents would have to consider situating a state agency where it provides the most services, and identify multiple locations – at least two of which are outside Dane County.

“You see these buildings all right there around the Capitol, for the most part,” the lawmaker told Wisconsin Watchdog last month. “These landlords know (about the DOA policy) and they screw us 10 times from Sunday when it comes to these leases.”

RELATED: Bill aims to change Madison-centric state leases

Adamczyk proposes the state tap into the resources of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands to save taxpayer money. The treasurer is one of three members of Wisconsin’s oldest state agency, serving alongside Secretary of State Doug La Follette, and Attorney General Brad Schimel. They preside over the School Trust Funds, with $1 billion in Trust Fund assets and more than 77,000 acres of School Trust Lands.

Adamczyk said the BCPL has plenty of money available, earning almost no interest in the current low short-term interest climate. The board could “easily write” checks to pay for construction of agency buildings, collecting rent on them.  Any rental income profits the BCPL receives must constitutionally flow back to all K-12 public schools yearly on a per pupil basis.

It’s a double-win, the treasurer said. Taxpayer money for rent would “flow back to the same taxpayers that paid the rent.”

“I’m a fiscal conservative. It is amazing for me to say that building these buildings is more efficient than renting them from some real estate firm,” Adamczyk said. “If we’re going to have these state employees, and I think we are, they need to be housed somewhere. Why not put them where it’s more efficient and costs less?”

Candidates seek to replace conservative Rep. Job Tate

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 14:55

Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, is resigning due to the deployment of his U.S. Naval reserve unit.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 10:45 a.m. Thursday.

Last week, Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, announced he was leaving his seat in the Vermont House due to the deployment of his U.S. naval unit. The replacement candidates now under consideration are unlikely to have the same conservative credentials.

On Friday, the Rutland County GOP presented the governor with a list of three candidates who could replace Tate. With 51 votes needed to preserve a veto from Republican Gov. Phil Scott, each of the current 53 Republican seats is direly important, and few successors are likely to be as conservative as Tate.

Scott began interviewing candidates this week, and Tate informed the governor that April 14 is his deadline.

RELATED: State Rep. Job Tate’s replacement won’t be as conservative as he is

The U.S. Naval Construction Battalions, of which Tate is a reservist, is based in Gulfport, Mississippi.  The unit is an expeditionary force and handles initial construction and infrastructure needs of the Navy, usually in hostile areas.

Tate is an explosives specialist and heavy equipment operator. As a courtesy to the rest of his unit, he has not disclosed details of the deployment.

Meet candidate Dave Soucy

Dave Soucy, one of the three on the Tate replacement list, has been general manager for the Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington for the past 11 years. The job requires regular coordination with local government.

DAVE SOUCY: general manager for the Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington.

“I’m used to municipal government,” Soucy told Watchdog. “Vermont is a small state, and our politics are close to home.”

Before working for the golf course, Soucy started several Vermont businesses, experience he says informs his economic policy. “I know what it’s like to run a business in Vermont and how difficult it is.”

When asked about his views on a Democrat proposal to raise Vermont’s minimum wage, he added, “I’d have a difficult time doing that. It’s not easy to give people good jobs. … At this point I would not support it.”

Soucy said that, if elected, he has a plan to get caught up: “I’m a voracious reader anyway, so I will read everything possible. I’ll reach out to Republican leadership to get their views and get information from other legislators. It’s difficult to take a position when following important topics through the press unless you’ve read all the documentation.”

He says his economic policies are conservative and align with Tate’s. However, he was hesitant to confirm his views on social issues in the state. “The only way I really can do this job is to look at issues and look at what is in constituents’ best interest. I can’t function if I’m worrying about what Job would have done.”

Soucy approached the Vermont Republican Party after he heard Tate’s chair would be vacant. He said that trips to Montpelier and coordinating with lawmakers in connection to the golf course has piqued his interest to take his political involvement to the next step.

Meet candidate Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison lives in North Chittenden with his wife, Pat. Last year, he retired from a 30-year position as president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association. The organization represents 800 retail stores, 200 suppliers and 120 food producers in Vermont. Through this position he participated in lobbying and policy efforts in Montpelier.

“Given my experience at the Statehouse, I am very familiar with many of the issues before them. I keep up with the daily House and Senate agendas and stay informed through conversations with lawmakers,” Harrison told Watchdog.

Jim Harrison: 30 year president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association.

He added, “No doubt there are issues I am not as familiar with that I will need to get more knowledgeable on if appointed, but I feel confident I could be up to speed very quickly.”

Harrison said his focus is on economics, lowering taxes and job creation. He wants to take a hard look at permitting processes for businesses, find ways to increase state bargaining power, and generate competition for state funds going toward utilities and insurance.

As president of an association that employs a high number of minimum wage workers, Harrison also rejects a raise in the minimum wage.

“A strong economy will do more to increase everyone’s wages than a new dictate from Montpelier,” he said. “Additionally, a significantly higher minimum wage will cause some loss in jobs, which could actually hurt many people that such proposals are trying to help.”

Harrison said he shares Tate’s embrace of fiscal conservatism. “Overall, I think we share a lot of similarities in a fiscally conservative approach to our state budget and supporting positions on legislation that are pro-economy. Like any two individuals, I am sure there are differences in how we may approach some issues.”

Meet candidate Whit Montgomery

Whit Montgomery, the third candidate nominated, is Killington’s police chief and a former constable. He graduated from the Vermont Police Academy in 1999 and began his 14-year career working as part of Killington’s law enforcement. He co-founded Killington Search and Rescue, a nonprofit specializing in rural, limited-access emergency response.

Montgomery did not respond to Watchdog’s request for an interview.

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

State Rep. Job Tate’s replacement won’t be as conservative as he is

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 14:16

OUT OF HERE: State Rep. Job Tate is leaving Vermont to deploy with his U.S. Navy reserve unit. Tate is the only House Republican not to endorse Gov. Phil Scott’s candidacy, and Scott will name his replacement.

State Rep. Job Tate, one of the most outspoken conservative voices in Montpelier, is resigning his seat in the state House after receiving news of his U.S. Navy Construction Battalion unit’s imminent deployment.

Tate, a Navy reservist first elected in 2014, was the only Republican representative not to endorse Gov. Phil Scott in the GOP primary in 2016.

Now Scott gets to pick Tate’s replacement from a list of three names provided by the state Republican Party.

RELATED: Candidates seek to replace Rep. Tate

That choice will most likely reflect Scott’s moderate brand of Republicanism, not Tate’s full-spectrum conservatism.

“I think that concern is well founded,” Tate told Watchdog. “I don’t think anyone is surprised (Scott’s) a moderate, and that’s representative of a lot of the state. I’m not going to blame him if he appoints someone who will hold his agenda.”

Tate was an outspoken critic  of Scott’s sanctuary-like response to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. And while Tate said his top priority is economic policy, he also voted against a resolution supporting abortion rights, a bill to remove firearms from the homes of those accused of domestic assault, and a bill terminating parental notification requirements for students receiving sexual orientation counseling.

“Having been in the trenches and fought the battle, representing these values is hard. Part of me wishes I could hand off my seat, but I think that is vanity rather than a desire for good representation,” he said.

The three candidates the party nominated are: Killington Police Chief Whit Montgomery; Dave Soucy, general manager of  Green Mountain National Golf Course; and Jim Harrison, former president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association.

“The driving concern in my district has been the economy and taxation,” Tate said. “On those core principles I do line up (with the candidates), but on other issues, voters are going to find more moderation in the candidate appointed,” said Tate. He also noted that his district is not particularly conservative on social issues, but  supported his candidacy because of economic policy.

But Tate said his election proves there is room for true conservatives in Vermont’s government.

“If we don’t have the courage to voice our convictions, we need to ask, why are we fighting anyway? Do we have an empty need to win? We need to believe in the cause of conservatism and sell it better. It’s tough to be a Republican in Vermont. But with the overreach of the left, I have complete confidence in a massive resurgence of the Republican Party in Vermont.”

After all, he added, Vermont was once a conservative state. “Rugged individualism was born out of these hills. I would like to think I had a small hand in progress toward conservatism simply by manning my post and not backing down when faced with withering opposition,” he said.

Tate hopes to leave Montpelier by the end of the week, and Scott has set up interviews with the three candidates.

Operational details of Tate’s deployment with the Seabees were not released publicly.

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

Schimel receives an attaboy as Senate’s Gorsuch war intensifies

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 00:16

MADISON, Wis. – With the Senate embroiled in a bitter battle over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, the Republican Attorneys General Association is publicly thanking one of its own for standing by its man.

SEEKING JUSTICE: President Donald Trump introduces appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Filibusters and a so-called ‘nuclear option’ loom before Gorsuch’s confirmation vote this week.

RAGA is making a digital ad buy in Wisconsin saluting Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel for his support of would-be Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. The ad is running on Facebook as part of an ad campaign across 10 states thanking attorneys general for their support, according to the association.

“Confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is the single most important issue in America right now. RAGA and its members are committed to the rule of law,” said RAGA Executive Director Scott Will. “It is critical to support judges who will interpret the law as written and not legislate from the bench. Attorney General Brad Schimel has done a great job speaking out in support of Neil Gorsuch, and we are thanking him for his leadership.”

The Senate on Tuesday formally opened debate on Gorsuch’s nomination, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisting a confirmation vote will be wrapped up by the time senators skip town Friday for the two-week Easter break.

Senate Democrats pledged obstruction as Republicans threatened to kill the traditional 60-vote requirement for confirmation. The move to a simple majority is compliments of Senate Democrats who altered the rules in 2013. The change, however, did not include votes on Supreme Court nominees.

McConnell warned his colleagues during a speech on the Senate floor that Democrats were “hurtling toward the abyss” and “trying to take the Senate with them.”

“It appears as if cloture will not be invoked, but we’ll find out on Thursday,” McConnell later told the Washington Post.  “But either way, we’ll be moving toward confirming Judge Gorsuch.”

DIGITAL THANKS: The Republican Attorneys General Association is buying digital ads to thank Attorney General Brad Schimel, among others, for supporting Gorsuch’s nomination.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., one of the most strident of Gorsuch’s Senate critics, vowed Tuesday night to “hold the floor and refuse to yield for as long as he is able to continue speaking.”

It was an interesting “Mr. Smith Goes to Hollywood” move for a liberal lawmaker who four years ago led the charge to change the Senate rules on executive confirmation votes. Democrats, of course, have called out Republicans for insisting on an up-or-down vote for Gorsuch after they refused to bring President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, up for a vote last year.

The political stew over Gorsuch, a widely respected, conservative appeals court judge, has been simmering since Trump announced his pick to fill the vacancy created in February 2016 by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Wisconsin’s top pols have been stirring the pot. In February, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, engaged in a twitter war over Trump’s nominee. Walker was at it again Tuesday. The state GOP has hammered Baldwin hard, calling the freshman senator a hypocrite and a flip-flopper for quickly deciding she would oppose the nominee after asserting she would “fully review” Gorsuch’s record before taking a position.

Schimel has been in the thick of the fight, urging the Senate to end the current 4-4 split in the high court.

“The American people deserve a court that can reach decisions,” Schimel said in a statement. “The United States Senate and Senator Baldwin should grant an up or down vote on Judge Gorsuch quickly. They owe that to the American people.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

‘Spontaneous’ left-wing group with scripts hates being described as ‘scripted’

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 17:02

MADISON, Wis. – The nationally organized, local left-wing grassroots group known as Indivisible is getting pretty ticked off about being described as “scripted” — even though its members are raising their own concerns about Wisconsin Indivisible chapters working from scripts.

INDIVISIBLE INDIGNATION: While the left-wing ‘resistance’ movement known as Indivisible doesn’t like to be described as ‘scripted,’ some of its members are complaining about the script.

The outrage – at least the latest outrage – follows an op/ed last week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by an Nicole Tieman, communications director for U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls. The piece, takes aim at the notion that the so-called Indivisible “uprisings” are part of an organic movement, instead of a scripted, well organized and, it appears, well financed national “resistance movement’ led by Democratic activists and seasoned liberal organizers.

“From where I’m sitting, ‘spontaneous grass-roots uprising’ is a gross mischaracterization of what actually is occurring on Capitol Hill and in district offices throughout the nation, and specifically here in Wisconsin,” Tieman wrote.

“Since the start of 2017, on average we have received 10 times more calls than in the previous year. The majority of calls are from individuals reading identical scripts, many of whom are not constituents of Sensenbrenner.”

And much like the scripted calls, Tieman wrote, the congressman’s town hall meetings “have been inundated with planned opposition — individuals who come to meetings with scripted questions and a predetermined plan to disrupt proceedings.”

Nicole Sweeney Etter took umbrage with Tieman’s characterization in a response published Monday in the Journal Sentinel. As “one of the founding members” of Indivisible’s Wauwatosa branch, Etter was disappointed that Tieman – and her boss – don’t see that the movement is all about civic engagement. She points to herself as a poster-child for pent-up political participation.

“While I’ve always been a regular voter and financially contributed to causes I believe in, I’m embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t confidently name all three of my members of Congress until just a few months ago,” Etter wrote. “All that changed after the Women’s March in Madison, the first political protest I ever joined. I started meeting with other elementary school moms to write postcards to our elected officials. Then we connected with neighborhood dads, and Indivisible Tosa was born.”

Etter counts 260 members in the Wauwatosa group, among “1,000-plus folks participating in Milwaukee-area chapters. Each was “drawn to the Indivisible Guide’s very practical advice.”

The “Guide” has become the liberal bible in the “resistance” movement against President Donald Trump, the Republican majority in Congress, and conservative principles just about anywhere in politics.

Indivisible was conjured up by former Democrat congressional staffers. In it, they “reveal best practices for making Congress listen.”

What the guide is really about is disruption, protest, #Resistance and, above all, making sure a friendly mainstream media covers every last second of the political show.

As for scripted, even Indivisible’s members are growing concerned about the centralized message.

On a recent Indivisible Facebook page, group member Angela Schneider got the sneaking suspicion that Tieman’s op/ed was not written in support of Indivisible’s cause.

“It seems to say we Indivisible groups are too scripted. And it seems to portray that we don’t listen,” Schneider wrote. “If this continues, people won’t see us as serious and only representing a few.”

Schneider advised her Indivisible friends to use Tieman’s piece to “do a little self-correction” on the script issue,  mainly because the Journal Sentinel is “anti-“ Gov. Scott Walker and Trump, she wrote. In other words, know your allies.

Indivisible member Beth Grace agreed with Schneider. She disagreed with local Indivisible leader Mike Cummens that Sensenbrenner is afraid of the liberal movement.

“I take this piece as that they are thinking of us as mindless and ignoring us because basically we are acting like Robo-calls,” the member wrote. “Well I respect that using the script makes some people feel more comfortable placing a call to (Sensenbrenner’s) office or standing up to ask a question at a town hall. I think the criticism of using scripting is accurate and that we need to stop doing it as much as possible and speak from our hearts instead.”

On the Facebook site, member Mary L. Kling wrote, “It seemed that (Sensenbrenner) was downplaying the idea of the Indivisible people.”

“This bothers me really as we actually are not a group of ‘scripted, disruptive people,’ Kling wrote. “I think we are people who do not like the way our country is going and have found a kind of unified place where we can find ways of productively letting our voices be heard.”

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported last month, the “Stop Jim” Indivisible movement has been particularly aggressive, turning up in large numbers at Sensenbrenner’s town hall events. The long-serving Republican has led the nation in such constituent sessions, despite the constant disruptions and uncivil behavior by activists.

HEATED TOWN HALLS: U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner has held plenty of town halls since early February, and many have gone from contentious to uncivil. The scene has been the same — by design — at other Republican town hall meetings.

At a town hall  meeting in West Allis, some Trump resisters were finally asked to leave the meeting after constantly interrupting conservative-leaning constituents who had the floor.

Joe Kraynick appears to be the leader of the Wauwatosa Indivisible group, among the more active and disruptive.

Kraynick did not respond to a request for comment, but he laid out his ideas for sticking it to Sensenbrenner in closed-group messages.

He offered some suggestions to activists on making things “rowdier.” Kraynick noted that the Indivisible activists haven’t “gone the full Chaffetz” with Sensenbrenner yet, referring to the raucous left-wing crowds U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confronted last month.

“It might not be quite time for that yet, but (Sensenbrenner) keeps avoiding answering certain questions,” the activist writes. “Reactions rattle him, he doesn’t like them. He tried at one point to move from Trump’s conflicts of interest to the Clinton Foundation, which earned an instant negative reaction, and he quickly dropped it and never came back to it.”

A review of Sensenbrenner’s town hall records found 17 people who have come to four or more meetings since the beginning of February. Cummens, the leader of the group, has been to eight meetings. Kraynick, the leader of the Wauwatosa group, has been to six. Amy Nowak, the group’s video tracker, has been to five meetings and the rest have all attended four. Some of the events include protesting at Sensenbrenner’s district office in Brookfield.

Schneider, the Indivisible member who posted her concerns on Facebook, said the movement needs “good PR” to support it.

Etter might be the answer. She is a content marketing writer, editor and project manager, according to her LinkedIn page. Her clients include some of the great bastions of liberal thought in Wisconsin – Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

And the left-wing movement has received plenty of help from a mainstream media that is loath to report on Indivisible’s connections with some of the biggest and well-funded liberal activists and Democratic Party members in the country.

While some Indivisible members have expressed a sense of futility in their efforts to stifle the conservative agenda, Schneider sounds encouraged.

“Well, I have lots of HOPE. I believe in Obama and I believe in US. We just have to be logical and how we help Jim see our position,” the Indivisible member wrote.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Mississippi Power announces yet another operational date for the Kemper Project

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 16:49

DELAYED: The Kemper Project will be operational by April 30, the company said in an filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Mississippi Power says the Kemper Project clean coal power plant will be operational by April 30 and that the previously announced delay will cost an additional $70 million.

The company, a subsidiary of utility giant the Southern Company, revealed the information in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Monday. The added expense brings the total cost to $7.237 billion.

The company claims that its 186,000 ratepayers in south Mississippi won’t pay the additional costs for the power plant, which converts lignite coal mined on site into a natural gas-like substance called synthesis gas to fuel its electricity-generating turbines.

The utility announced on March 16 that the facility would miss its mid-March operational date because of tubing leaks in the synthesis gas cooler on one of the plant’s two gasifiers, Gasifier A, which required an outage for a repair. The company says it needs the additional time to restart Gasifier A and establish integrated operation on Gasifier B, which it says has been running since Gasifier A went down.

Getting Kemper operational has been a massive headache for the Southern Company. The utility has blown through seven months of new operation dates and is nearly three years behind schedule. The utility says every month of delay costs it between $25 million and $35 million.

RELATED: Kemper Project clean coal power plant will miss yet another start date

The clean coal power plant has seen cost increases for 22 consecutive months. The project, announced in December 2006, was originally estimated to cost $1.8 billion.

Timeline on the last six months of schedule delays:

  • Oct. 2 – Mississippi Power announces the plant will be operational on lignite by Nov. 30.
  • Oct. 28 – The utility insists that the plant will be operational by that date.
  • Oct. 31 – In an earnings call with investors, Tom Fanning, the CEO of Mississippi Power’s parent company (the Southern Company), says on the call that “as we moved through the startup process and we’ve knocked over these dominoes that you normally expect with the startup process, I think it has gone beautifully. This plant is going to work. It is working.”
  • Nov. 4 – The company announces in a news release that it has revised Kemper’s in-service date to Dec. 31.
  • Dec. 2 – In a news release, the company announces that Kemper’s commercial operation date is pushed back to January.
  • Jan. 31 – The company admits in a news release that the plant won’t be operational until late February.
  • Feb. 22 – Due to the need to shut down one of the plant’s two gasifiers for ash removal, the plant won’t go online until mid-March, according to a news release.
  • March 16 – The company reveals that Kemper will miss its mid-March start date.
  • April 3 – The company says the facility will be fully operational by April 30.

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

Report highlights failure of Education Department’s overreach on campus sexual assault

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 16:00

CAMPUS JUSTICE: Neither accusing nor accused students are served by campus adjudication of sexual assault, a new report finds.

Tuesday is the sixth anniversary of a “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. That letter sparked an intense debate between proponents of due process and victims’ advocates on the necessary and proper role that universities should play in tackling campus sexual assault.

A new report from Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, an organization that has worked to increase awareness about the lack of due process in campus adjudication systems, shows that the 2011 letter has only made things worse for schools.

While OCR claimed the letter was merely “guidance,” it carried with it the threat of a loss of federal funding for failing to comply. In the years after the guidance was issued, OCR opened more than 300 investigations into schools alleged to have violated Title IX by not adequately responding to accusations of sexual assault. In every investigation conducted by OCR, some violation of Title IX has been found, even if the findings are inconsistent with each other.

For example, in one finding, even OCR determined it was more likely than not that the accused student hadn’t committed sexual assault, but found the school in violation of Title IX because it did not immediately open an investigation (because the accuser didn’t want one) and because the school didn’t find the accused to be “not responsible” fast enough.

Schools, predictably, sign on to change their policies (often further reducing the due process rights of accused students) in order to satiate OCR and avoid losing federal funding.

SAVE’s new report doesn’t just detail the problems that accused students face at colleges and universities across the country, but also the problems for accusers. The report explains the “conflict of interest” that is inherent in schools wanting “to maintain and promote a positive reputation of the institution.”

The millions of dollars being spent by colleges to hire investigators doesn’t pay for adequate training, and adjudicators lack the skills to preserve and analyze forensic evidence, according to the report. School administrators also lack the ability to compel students to turn over evidence. At Vanderbilt University, for example, the school found the accused students not responsible because it couldn’t subpoena their cell phones, which held footage of them gang-raping a passed-out young woman. The criminal justice system was the only way for the victim (who didn’t know anything had happened to her) to get justice.

Bending toward injustice

There’s also a conflict of interest that affects accused students. Those adjudicating reports of sexual assault have a moneyed interest in complying with OCR’s requirements that heavily suggest denying due process.

These administrator’s jobs depend on schools’ need to forcefully adjudicate campus sexual assault claims, and if they find for accused students, the media and campus activists will demand their heads.

The SAVE report found that in 2011, complaints to OCR about sex-related discrimination tripled, from 391 complaints a year in 2010, before the Dear Colleague letter, to 1,096 complaints in 2011. As of fiscal year 2014, the number of complaints has doubled to more than 2,000. Every other type of discrimination has remained at the same levels.

Accusers are still filing complaints with OCR (which requires little to no money), while accused students are filing lawsuits at an increased rate. SAVE found that between 1992 and 2009, just 10 lawsuits were filed by accused students. Just two years after the Dear Colleague letter, in 2013, the number of lawsuits began to dramatically increase. In 2016, more than 40 lawsuits were filed (that we know about). That trend has accelerated so far in 2017.

SAVE previously analyzed 51 lawsuits filed since 2012 that had received a judicial decision prior to July 15, 2016, and found that 30 had been decided at least partly favorable to the accused student.

RELATED: Woman who wrote book about Clinton accusers in line for civil rights position

School administrators are publicly supportive of combating campus sexual assault, but there have been internal critics of OCR’s policies.

SAVE quoted John McCardell, vice chancellor of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., as criticizing the department’s rules. He said the Dear Colleague letter has “imposed on entities ill-trained or equipped for the task, a quasi-judicial role, with the implication that ‘justice,’ however defined, can be satisfactorily rendered through processes that cannot possibly replicate a genuine legal proceeding.”

SAVE also included a quote from a student affairs employee who outlined the inherent bias against accused students by OCR’s policies.

“A Title IX investigation is anything but equitable. A complainant is hand-held throughout the process – called a “victim” or “survivor” from the get-go, given on- and off-campus resources, academic accommodations, counseling, advocacy, etc,” the employee wrote anonymously.

“On the other hand, the accused student has everything at stake from loss of educational opportunity, ruined reputation, compromised future, and sometimes criminal charges, and is in dire need of help. But that student does not have an advocacy center on campus, and does not receive any information about resources or academic accommodations. And the consequences, of course, are not the same. There are no sanctions for a wrongful accusation.”

It is not just group’s like SAVE that have been critical of OCR guidelines. Professors from Harvard Law School and Penn State, as well as the American College of Trial Lawyers, National Association of Scholars and the American Association of University Professors, have all openly criticized the Obama-era policies.

It remains to be seen what President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plan to do about the problem.

It appears that he has just tapped a “libertarian feminist” to at least temporarily run OCR, but there has been no indication whether the 2011 Dear Colleague letter and subsequent guidance documents will be amended or rescinded.

Mississippi charter schools case hinges on key constitutional question

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 15:59

INTERVENOR: Mississippi Justice Institute Director Mike Hurst argued in Hinds County Chancery Court along with other attorneys against a case brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center that could lead to the end of public charter schools in the state.

A lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center that threatens funding for Mississippi charter schools could hinge on a key constitutional question after oral arguments were held Tuesday in Hinds County Chancery Court.

The question is: Does the Mississippi State Constitution allow the redirection of local property tax revenue from local public school districts to public charter schools, which are not under the control of the district? The SPLC says no, and attorneys for the state, the state charter school association, one of the schools and a group of parents say yes.

The arguments hinge on two sections: 206, which created a state education trust fund and allows local districts to levy property taxes; and 208, which requires state funds to go to what are termed “free schools.”

Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas set a pair of deadlines for the attorneys in the case after 90 minutes of oral arguments, with May 10 for proposed findings of fact and June 21 for any required rebuttals. A ruling will likely be handed down by Thomas after that time.

RELATED: Mississippi parents win right to intervene in charter school lawsuit

The SPLC’s lead attorney, Will Bardwell, said in his arguments that charter schools violated both sections 206 and 208. He also said the SPLC wasn’t seeking the dissolution of charter schools, but that the Legislature needed to find another way of funding them that didn’t involve local property taxes. He argued since only the state has oversight over charter schools (the Charter School Authorizer Board) and local districts have no control, charter schools shouldn’t receive ad valorem (property) taxes that otherwise would have gone to the public school district.

Bardwell cited a 2012 case heard by the Mississippi Supreme Court, Pascagoula School District vs. Tucker. The court ruled unconstitutional a new law passed by the Legislature that required Pascagoula to share ad valorem revenues with the other school districts in Jackson County. The court ruled in favor of Pascagoula because the state constitution says in Section 206 that a district can “levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools.”

Michael Bentley, who is representing Midtown Public Charter School, said that if Thomas ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the state’s three charter schools would have to be shuttered and that it would have an adverse effect on their students. He also made the point that the district affected, Jackson Public Schools, has not filed with the plaintiffs and instead filed a motion to be dismissed from the proceedings.

Krissy Nobile, representing the state from the attorney general’s office, hammered home an argument concerning Section 208. According to state law, if a child lives 30 miles or more for a school located in their district, they can attend a school in an adjacent district. The money that the old district received for that child, both in state and local tax revenue, follows the child to the new school.

Nobile also brought up the matter of conservatorships, where the state takes over a failing school district and fires the local superintendent and the school board. Under such a scenario, the Mississippi Department of Education appoints a conservator to get the district back on track. At no point during this process does the local district have any control over the property tax revenues still flowing into its coffers.

Gregg Mayer, who is representing the state’s charter school association, said if the constitutional standard applied by the SPLC — which requires both state and local control to receive both state and local funds — could spell the end for conservatorships and the transfer rule if Thomas ruled against the charter schools.

Bardwell told Mississippi Watchdog that local funding is the “heart of the issue.” He also said there’s a big difference between the 2013 Charter Schools Act and two programs raised by the defendants, school district conservatorships and the transfer law, to defend the funding formula of charter schools.

“Everyone in the courtroom agrees that all the programs we discussed are constitutional,” Bardwell said. “The difference between the Charter School Act and those statutes that provide funding for those programs is that the Charter Schools Act explicitly requires districts to send ad valorem tax revenue to schools outside their control. The other statutes don’t breathe a word about ad valorem tax revenue.”

Mississippi Justice Institute director Mike Hurst, who is representing several parents who have children in both charter and Jackson Public Schools, told Mississippi Watchdog that the SPLC made some key admissions in their arguments in the case.

“I think when the SPLC admitted that the other types of public schools (the Mississippi School of Math and Science, for example) we have around the state — and that the Mississippi Legislature has authorized to receive both state and local funding — are constitutional, I don’t see how they can argue that public charter schools are unconstitutional. They are the same type of setup. It’s a contradiction in their argument.”

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

Pages