Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The waiting game Congress is making progress. We think.

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We know, we know: Last week, Olympia Snowe made history by being the only Republican in 2009 to vote for any sort of healthcare reform, even in committee-level draft language far from its final form. And after she made her “when history calls, history calls” remark, fellow non-nutjob Republican senator Susan Collins decided she might be hearing things as well.

Snowe, of course, voted for the healthcare-reform bill being discussed in the Senate Finance Committee, parting ranks with her fellow Republicans in that group, and defying those GOPers who threatened to deny her a senior post on the Senate Commerce Committee if she approved of the plan. The Finance Committee’s bill, the last of five proposals to make it through a congressional committee, has been roundly criticized by conservatives as being too expensive, by liberals as not making care affordable (and giving hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to insurance companies), and even by Snowe herself for being “far from” what she wants to see in a reform package.

Nevertheless, she has been lauded around the country for the move, which definitely put her in the “independent Republican” category — if it didn’t strike “Republican” from her affiliation entirely.
And she has left herself more than enough wiggle room for voting for or against future revised proposals, saying in the committee meeting, “My vote today is my vote today. It doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.”

Snowe has repeatedly objected to plans that include at their outset a “public option,” most frequently envisioned as a Medicare-like program for people of all ages, to compete with insurance companies’ plans. Public-option proponents say it is the best way to bring down insurance rates and improve coverage and service.

But she is not ruling such a plan out entirely; she has advocated for a “trigger,” in which a public option would be created if certain affordability and coverage targets were not met through the private market alone. (She told Charlie Rose last week that she wants to see what the market does with the restrictions and reforms the bill would put in place first.)

But she also made a clear declaration of principle: “The status-quo approach has produced one glaring common denominator, that is that we have a problem that is growing worse, not better,” she said in the meeting.

Collins may have heard the call, too, signaling in interviews after the Finance Committee’s vote that she too might be open to some form of healthcare reform. However, a statement by her office was almost completely critical of the Finance Committee’s bill, saying it stifles job creation and does little to control costs; it also completely dismissed the Senate Health Committee’s bill and the three House bills that need to be combined. And Collins has repeatedly opposed any form of public option.

If Collins is willing to go along with some version of reform, that might give the Democrats enough votes in the Senate to get something passed, but certain terms will likely be dictated by Snowe, who is the only Republican still at the negotiating table. While congressional Democrats spent the weekend saying they weren’t going to “cater” to her needs in drafting the final bill, Snowe is in a powerful position, and the actual picture that develops as the five committees try to combine their divergent bills (the other four do include a public option) will definitely have a great deal to do with her.

But until there is a bill passed — and anything that passes will take years to have full effect — we are still waiting.

Press Releases: Numbers game

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you take a close look at the latest polls, you will find that supporters and opponents of November's same-sex marriage referendum question are locked in a neck-and-neck battle. The state's major media outlets, however, did not report the news this way. In fact, they got it backward. Here are some samples:

PORTLAND PRESS HERALD "A new poll shows an edge for supporters of same-sex marriage in Maine's Nov. 3 referendum, with 51.8 percent of those surveyed saying they plan to vote to uphold the law legalizing it and 42.9 percent planning to vote for repeal."

BANGOR DAILY NEWS "The results of a new poll released Wednesday show growing support among voters for Maine's gay marriage law."

LEWISTON SUN JOURNAL "Mainers planning to vote on Election Day favor keeping Maine's law allowing same-sex marriage."

WGME "A slight majority of Mainers support same sex marriage."

MPBN "A majority of Mainers in a new poll say they're ready to uphold the state's new gay-marriage law by voting 'no' on the people's-veto referendum question."

At first glance, they'd all appear to be right. The poll itself, by Pan Atlantic SMS Group in Portland, says 40.9 percent of people surveyed said they would vote to repeal the new same-sex marriage law; 2 percent said they were leaning toward repeal the law; 50.6 percent said they would uphold the law; 1.2 percent said they were leaning toward upholding it; 5.2 percent said they were undecided.

The total of all those wanting to repeal the law is 42.9 percent, and those who would uphold it is 51.8 percent.

The key fact, though, is the survey's margin of error, plus-or-minus 4.9 percent. All of the news outlets reported it, but failed to accurately describe what it means: it's a statistical dead heat.

If you take the numbers for people saying they plan to vote a particular way, those in favor of the law are between 45.7 and 55.5 percent of the likely voters; those desiring repeal are between 36 and 45.8 percent.

That 0.1 percent overlap is bad enough, but when adding the "leaning" voters in to each category, the media outlets failed to recognize that the dead heat actually gets closer: voters plus leaners favoring the law are between 38 and 47.8 percent of the population; voters plus leaners for repeal are between 46.9 and 56.7 percent of likely Maine voters -- an overlap of 0.9 percent.

Now you see: It is quite possible that the poll has found more people wanting to repeal the law than supporting it.

And it actually gets worse. Patrick Murphy, Pan Atlantic's president, says it is a nationally accepted fact among pollsters that surveys unavoidably under-report the number of people who oppose same-sex marriage. The reason is that people who oppose it fear being thought of poorly by the person interviewing them, and so they answer that they will support it. But when it comes to actually voting, they vote the way they feel, not the way they said they would. (Pollsters call this the "Bradley effect," after an African-American man who led in the polls but lost to a white man in the 1982 California gubernatorial election.)

And while many pro-marriage young people may be landline-less and therefore left out of the survey, Murphy says the 18-to-34 age group was properly represented in the survey, and studies have shown that young people with landlines are not statistically different from young people who have only cell phones.

All of this gets us to a position that is radically different from what the mainstream media told you. The real story should have been: A new poll shows voters who oppose same-sex marriage outnumber supporters in Maine. While the results themselves show a statistical dead heat, survey experts know that opponents are often under-counted because of unavoidable imperfections in the polling process.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gatherings: Join the Scooter Rally!

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If your current ride is a bit too motorized for Critical Mass, but still not loud enough for Laconia's Bike Week, don't miss Monday's scooter rally, starting at noon at the East End Beach parking lot in Portland.

Phuc Tran, local tattoo artist and scooter-souper, has been flyering scooters around town for a couple weeks now, trying to get a group of "like-minded scooter riders" together. Tran and about 10 or so others went on regular rides together over the summer, and now they want more company.

It'll work better if people bring vehicles with engines at or below 150 cc, because bigger ones make it hard for the smaller types to keep up, Tran says. (Apparently, alternative transportation does have its limits.)

"I think scooter/moped riders are a self-selecting group," he says, and hopes to meet more people who are actively "choosing to ride a scooter" rather than a bike or a motorcycle. If the group is large enough, it might spawn a future ride to benefit a local charity.

"Hopefully the weather will hold out," Tran says, adding that he's not sure what route the group will take, but is coming up with something he hopes people will enjoy.

Scooter Rally | October 12 @ noon | East End Beach parking lot, Portland | Free