Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gubernatorial scorecard: End of the innocence

Published in the Portland Phoenix


As the legislative session ends, the amount and nature of Governor Paul LePage's political influence has become clearer. He is no longer the bombastic blowhard he once was, but neither is he ceding control of major policy initiatives to House and Senate leaders — though it is easy to see why people might think that. Herewith, our sixth Gubernatorial Scorecard, in which we score LePage on political savvy, and on whether what he's trying to do is good policy. Note the running total.
ENDING REGULATION | LePage has trumpeted the passage of LD 1, designed to reduce the state bureaucracy. Republicans have claimed victory, while Democrats are happy they were able to limit the damage the bill might have done. Whether it changes anything in the understaffed, confused state-office hallways remains to be seen.
POLITICS • He led an aggressive charge that moved the compromise line significantly in his favor | 8/10
POLICY • Most of the stuff LD 1 fixed should have been fixed long ago | 8/10
ENDING DEBATE | The governor has vetoed several bills that received overwhelming support in the State House, most notably one that would have limited health-insurance premium costs. Perhaps wary of provoking him, or perhaps persuaded by back-room politics, GOP legislators have switched their own votes and sustained his vetoes.
POLITICS • Requiring his followers to flip-flop, and getting them to agree? | 9/10
POLICY • For a guy who wants to lower health-care costs, he's sure pandering to the problem: insurance companies | 2/10
ENDING VOTER RIGHTS | Proudly declaring that no longer will the non-problem of voter fraud (and the non-problem of overworked municipal clerks) be allowed in Maine, LePage trumpeted his signing of a bill dramatically limiting voter rights, including same-day registration. A people's veto campaign is already under way, and looks to be one of the bigger public battles the governor will have to fight.
POLITICS • Rammed through a divisive bill that will benefit his party significantly | 6/10
POLICY • Though the Founders wanted to limit the franchise, we now know fewer voters is bad for democracy | 1/10
ENDING TAXATION | LePage has also announced his pride in signing a budget providing "the largest tax cut in Maine history." Never mind that nearly all of that cut goes to rich people, nor that he backed down on a March threat to veto anything other than his exact budget as proposed. (This one's more than a little different.)
POLITICS • Got the poor to go against their self-interest yet again | 9/10
POLICY • Next stop: the biggest spending cut in Maine history. Back to dirt roads and one-room schools we go! | 1/10
ENDING CONSISTENCY | Despite promises to let the private sector alone, the governor signed a bill that allowed the state to purchase a landfill in East Millinocket, in hopes of landing a private deal that proponents say could save as many as 450 mill jobs. A similar corporate-bailout deal in Old Town in 2004 never fulfilled its job-preservation promise, and landed the state with a massive cleanup problem.
POLITICS • Gets to say he tried to preserve jobs | 8/10
POLICY • How much more will Mainers spend to preserve jobs that are leaving anyway? | 1/10
This month's total | Politics 40/50 | Policy 13/50 | Last month: Politics 36/50 | Policy 15/50 | Overall: Politics 188/250 | Policy 119/250

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Seeking relief: Business-led Haiti-aid group shuts down

Published in the Portland Phoenix


What happens when lawyers, public-relations experts, bankers and accountants, construction contractors, insurance brokers, and manufacturers join forces to get involved in emergency disaster relief in one of the most underdeveloped countries in the Western Hemisphere?
Much less than they hoped, it turns out. The brainchild of Darcy Pierce, a Scarborough-based independent consultant specializing in linking businesses with developing countries, MaineLine Haiti was a non-profit intending to make "a direct, specific difference" in Haitians' lives in the wake of a devastating January 2010 earthquake. The group is dissolving after just 18 months in operation, with no on-the-ground achievements, and is turning over its remaining assets to Portland-based Haiti-aid group Konbit Sante.
From the beginning, Pierce won backing from some of Maine's most reputable companies (including Preti Flaherty, Unum, Reed and Reed, and CD&M Communications) and parlayed that into glowing prognostications (10 schools built by "mid-2011") and fawning interviews in the Portland Press Herald and on several local TV stations. For this story, Pierce repeatedly declined to answer questions, referring thePortland Phoenix to attorney Susan LoGuidice of Preti Flaherty, who also serves on MaineLine's board of directors.
LoGuidice says the businesses "went in trying to do a good thing," but it didn't work out the way they wanted. A key pitfall was that MaineLine Haiti's decision to partner with a non-profit called Samaritan's Purse turned out badly.
In mid-2010 that group, run by Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) and focused on building schools, became the target of allegations that it was inappropriately spending federal disaster-relief grants on evangelical Christian missionary efforts. While Graham and Samaritan's Purse denied any wrongdoing, MaineLine ended the partnership because, LoGuidice says, MaineLine members were uneasy about the organization.
MaineLine, which had raised a total of $62,645 in cash (in addition to unquantified in-kind donations), including $28,500 contributed by the founding businesses, discovered that finding another partner proved difficult, she says.
After paying Pierce a consulting fee for "a number of months," and covering the costs of his two trips to Haiti, MaineLine's backers cut costs — telling Pierce they couldn't afford to pay him anymore (Pierce volunteered thereafter, LoGuidice says) — and looked for a less direct way to help.
"We found a high-quality institution . . . right in our back yard," LoGuidice says, referring to Konbit Sante, which has been helping Haitians improve their health care for 11 years. Pierce had met with the group in Haiti in April 2010, according to his Twitter feed; a tweet called them "great people doing great work." MaineLine decided to give them what remained of its money — around $30,000, LoGuidice says.
Nate Nickerson, Konbit Sante's executive director, says he understands what happened to MaineLine, because working in Haiti is unlike development work elsewhere in the world. "Some of the issues are the same, but the context is different," he says. In a country where more non-governmental organizations are at work than anywhere else on the planet, the people still live in grinding poverty because of a lack of coordination among all those seeking to help, Nickerson says.
Frustration and ultimately stalemate "was the experience of lots of groups that came in" after the earthquake, Nickerson says. His group doesn't have those sorts of problems because it has been working in Haiti since 2000. "We have the relationships in the community," he says, including 33 Haitian staff, an office in the largest hospital in the region that Konbit Sante serves, and a partnership with a group of Haitian medical professionals.
It's through that latter group that Konbit Sante will use the money donated by MaineLine Haiti, Nickerson says. While the deadly cholera epidemic that followed the quake continues — and is on the rise because it is the rainy season in Haiti — funding is dropping because emergency aid is running out. Konbit Sante will teach people how to protect themselves, including clean sanitation practices and water-treatment processing.
While Nickerson says Konbit Sante would welcome the opportunity to partner with any of MaineLine's former sponsors, LoGuidice says "it's too soon to tell" if that will happen. "We're taking a little breather."

Do you accept this fee?

Published in the Portland Phoenix; sidebar to larger banking story by another writer

How much do you spend in ATM fees? Maine consumers are paying more — by one estimate, the average per-transaction charge has risen from $1.50 in 2006 to $2.35 last year. And some ATMs charge $10 or $20, says Yellow Breen, chief strategic officer at Bangor Savings Bank, which is acutely aware of rising ATM fees because it reimburses customers for any changes they incur using non-Bangor ATMs. (The company charges its accountholders no ATM fees of its own.)
Those high prices, Breen says, are mainly for “captive audiences,” such as those at casinos or jails (see “Jail ATM Charges $10 Per Transaction,” by Rick Wormwood, November 12, 2010). But the cost of getting your hands on your money is rising.
Where does that money go? Simply put, it lines the pockets of the banks. But despite criticism from consumer advocates, banks say it’s not as much of a money-maker as you might be thinking.
The big winner in the transaction is likely your bank — the one that holds your account. Many banks charge accountholders for using what are called “foreign ATMs,” the industry term for “ATMs owned by someone other than your bank.” There’s virtually no cost to your bank when you use someone else’s ATM — maybe a few cents, if that. So banks that treat customers that way are simply taking your money.
If the ATM you’re using is owned by a bank (you’ll know; it’ll have the bank’s name plastered all around it as advertising), then the bank will charge a fee. Ostensibly this practice began either as a charge for convenience, or to discourage you from noticing that the most convenient ATM in your life belongs to another bank, so perhaps you should just shift your account there. But now it’s mostly just to keep the ATM from losing money.
Breen says “for the most part they’re not money-makers,” though they are “not super-expensive” either. The super-advanced ATMs, equipped with scanners that a photo of the checks and cash you deposit and print the image on your receipt, can cost $60,000 to $80,000, and will last five to seven years.
Add in the cost of servicing the machines and renting space (or building a larger branch to accommodate the ATM), and a bank is on the hook for $25,000 to $30,000 per year, per machine. “It’s hard to make that up two bucks at a time,” Breen quips. (His bank charges $3 to customers from other banks, but does not charge accountholders for using other banks’ machines, and reimburses customers for any fees those other banks charge.)
Without fees, would there be very many ATMs? Perhaps — Breen says customer convenience and advertising are other benefits of providing ATMs. He adds that Bangor Savings Bank has another incentive to put theirs around — to reduce demand for its reimbursement program.
If it’s not a bank that owns the ATM (the machine is at a convenience store, bar, or nightclub, for example), then the operator of the machine charges a fee, which is often split between the owner of the machine and the owner of the business it’s in. That money covers the purchase and operation of the machine, too, though usually those ATMs are far less sophisticated than bank-owned ones, and can generate a fair amount of cash for their owners, if they’re in high-traffic areas.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Press Releases: Resurgam

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Two years after ceasing production for lack of funding, Portland-based LibertyNewsTV is back in action, and just released a June episode of the progressive news-commentary series, which is distributed on CTN Channel 5 in Portland and on public-access cable channels nationwide.

The money that evaporated in the wake of Obama's election (see "Freedom Isn't Free," by Jeff Inglis, September 25, 2009) hasn't returned, says Matt Power, the series mastermind, producer, and editor. Rather, he plans to make the show "with whatever budget we have." A few donations have come in since the announcement of the show's revival, and Power is hoping for more as viewers rediscover the program.

The new incarnation (available online at libertynewstv.org) focuses primarily on the threats of nuclear power, with new host (and local actor) Tess Van Horn noting that the amount of spent fuel stored at the Fukushima reactor in Japan is one-fourth the amount stored at Vermont Yankee, in the far southeastern corner of that state, right next to the New Hampshire and Massachusetts borders.

A dance performance follows, offering a non-narrative new exploration of themes of death and ruination, soundtracked with ominous music and the "I found radiation" warning crackle of a Geiger counter.

The show closes with a segment of commentary from local thespian Daniel Noel. He moves from a Bill Keller-esque assertion that social networking is making people dumber, to a last-decade warning that corporations are collecting data on millions of individuals, and concludes with an exhortation to "unplug," backed with "O Fortuna," the clich├ęd threatening symphonic ode from Carmina Burana.

The contrasts between this new generation of the show and its first run are perhaps starkest in Noel's piece. His comments in previous shows were hilarious, incisive, and ironic — calls to action based on deeply held views and thoughtfully considered facts. In this installment they come across as the ill-informed rantings of an old white guy afraid of a changing world and too smug to bother solidifying his arguments.

Those problems exist in other segments of the new show too: nuclear and other threats are implied or assumed, despite the ready availability of great supporting details that would both focus the points and differentiate the arguments from the breezy dialogue that today passes for political conversation.

Power used to have great research and excellent assemblages of clips — from politicians and activists alike — bolstering the show's own commentary, and urging repetition by activists out in the streets. Some segments could have doubled as well-researched talking points to add to an ongoing social debate.

But this time, I didn't understand the underlying point about the nuclear segment until talking with Power: An electrical failure at Vermont Yankee could bring about an even bigger Chernobyl-like incident right here in New England, he told me.

That concise, solid observation would have made it into an earlier episode in a much clearer way. The same is true of Power's observation that while Germany has promised to be nuke-free by 2022, "Obama has said nothing of the kind" and continued to push for nuclear plants as part of domestic energy efforts.

"Now that Obama has shifted into election mode, it's the only time he's going to listen," Power told me. In past programs, that powerful call to action would be made verbatim. Here, it's simply, and less effectively, a behind-the-scenes guiding principle.

Which is not to say there isn't hope. Power told me about ideas for future episodes that may return to the focus of old, addressing issues of cultural violence and social psychology, while reviving the show's underlying purpose of empowering and informing real-world activism. LibertyNewsTV is back, and while its relaunch has a few hiccoughs, the show has done better, and can once again. Stay tuned.

(Disclosure: I delivered a commentary on a 2009 episode of LibertyNewsTV, and a clip from a Matt Power short film featuring Phoenix staff writer Deirdre Fulton is included in the title sequence of the reborn series.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Gubernatorial scorecard: The quiet man

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Governor Paul LePage has, perhaps unexpectedly, refrained from loudly saying stupid things over the past month or so, since GOP legislators confronted him and told him he was a problem child. (Dems figured this out too, and are using LePage's photo on flyers recruiting activists for summer work.) Here's our fifth Gubernatorial Scorecard, in which we score Governor Paul LePage on political savvy, and on whether what he's trying to do is good policy. Note the running total.
QUIET ATTACK | LePage's budget proposal would eliminate all state funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network ($2 million a year), and is widely viewed as payback for aggressive coverage by MPBN news staff during his campaign. When asked, LePage denied it was payback, and stuck to that line.
POLITICS • He may have mastered the art of attacking without seeming to | 7/10
POLICY • Slashing the only decent news provider available to most of rural Maine | 2/10
QUIET SPENDING | LePage's budget also gives big handouts to Maine's wealthiest (in the form of income- and estate-tax cuts); he has claimed it is better for everyone because it also gives tiny handouts to working Mainers. This assertion, while technically true, has yet to be challenged by nonpartisan observers (such as the press), who might note that trickle-up is the economic model backed by the evidence; trickle-down, based on evidence and experience, is a failure.
POLITICS • Is he also mastering the art of double-speak? | 8/10
POLICY • Giving money to the rich barely helps the economy; giving it to the poor is a massive boost to all | 2/10
QUIET ACTIVISM | The governor promised during his campaign to take away worker rights, ostensibly to give employers more freedom to create jobs. He has carried this through, by killing a bill that would have increased the minimum wage, by reviving an anti-union proposal long thought dead by State House watchers, and by cutting welfare benefits.
POLITICS • Keeping his campaign promises | 7/10
POLICY • The jury's out on whether employers will exploit workers, hire more, or both | 5/10
QUIET DEATH | The governor and his GOP operatives rammed through a major overhaul of the state's health-insurance system, reducing consumer protections and allowing different companies to play by different (and fewer) rules. It drew very vocal opposition around the state and forced the resignation of the state's top insurance regulator. Fewer people will be able to afford care, what care there is will be more limited and more expensive, and companies will be freer to screw customers.
POLITICS • Proved he can work the system to get major agenda goals accomplished | 10/10
POLICY • Insurers from other states welcome, except Vermont, which just moved closer to single-payer | 2/10
QUIET DESTRUCTION | LePage has moved to reduce Maine's efforts toward energy independence, saying existing rules are too burdensome on customers, including businesses. In addition to supporting continued dependence on foreign sources, critics say the move could kill Maine's nascent green-energy industry. The governor says much of that industry depends on tax breaks and is "temporary."
POLITICS • Policy-wonk move cleverly explained as "you save money" | 9/10
POLICY • Green innovation needs government mandates to succeed | 4/10
This month's total | Politics 36/50 | Policy 15/50 | Last month: Politics 24/50 | Policy 29/50 | Overall: Politics 148/250 | Policy 106/250