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Entries for May 2011

18
Maureen Dowd the doyen of liberal columnists, the epitome of kindhearted tolerance, emoting sensitivity from her fingertips, let out a screech like a loon the other day – howling about anyone who dared to criticize the demonstrators dancing in the streets celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death, roaring like an enraged Cassandra, “I don’t want closure. There is no closure after tragedy. I want revenge.”
 
The demur Ms. Dowd then proceeded to kick every miscreant in sight – including a French newspaper editor no one ever heard of – adding, “Liberal guilt has its uses, but it should not be wasted on this kill mission.”
 
Who’d have thought it? In front of our eyes the kindhearted Ms. Dowd morphed into a blood-thirsty Comanche.
 

 

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18
I said: Who ever heard of Republicans saying increasing fees $150 million isn’t a tax?
                                     
And the former legislator sitting across the table said: You missed the real tax increase.
 
I blinked: Come again?
 
It turns out for years private colleges – like Campbell and Queens and Peace and Meredith – haven’t paid sales taxes. But Speaker Thom Tillis’ budget changes that.
 
You mean, I said, the House passed a tax increase on private colleges?
 
Wrong, again, the former legislator said. That’s not a tax. That’s a loophole closing. Or at least that’s what the House Leadership calls it.
 

 

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18
The fall of Ruffin Poole is an old story in politics, one familiar to readers of All the King’s Men.
 
An idealistic young man (and it’s always a man) goes into politics, hooks up with a winning politician and ends up next to the seat of power.
 
It’s a heady wine. Suddenly people want to talk to you, befriend you and invite you for dinner or on nice trips. They’re often powerful and rich people. Their cars, their homes, their vacations are the finest. Anything they can do to make your job and your life easier, they say, just let them know.
 
I’ve been there as a young man. But I had the good fortune to work for a politician who made it clear that succumbing to the temptations wasn’t acceptable if you wanted to stay close to power and to the action.
 
So I wonder what happened to Ruffin Poole. Maybe he was flawed. Maybe it was something in the tone set by the Governor he worked for. But I know a number of other people who worked closely with Mike Easley. All are people of integrity, and none of them did anything to besmirch their reputations or betray the public.
 
It’s really a story as old as Genesis. Man faces temptation, and temptation wins. It‘s tragic for Ruffin Poole. But it’s a salutary lesson for any young man – or woman – in politics today.

 

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17
The lobbying war between WakeMed’s Plebes and UNC Hospital’s Aristocrats in the legislature just took a wild turn at the Aristocrats’ expense.
 
So far the Plebes have been set on cutting UNC’s $44 million state tax subsidy but then, last week, Plebe chieftain Bill Atkinson surprised everyone by announcing he wanted to buy Raleigh’s Rex Hospital from the UNC Aristocrats – for $750 million.
 
The Raleigh newspaper expressed some qualms about Atkinson eliminating his competition by buying it but you have to admit his timing was brilliant.
 
The UNC Aristocrats are asking financially strapped legislators to give them $44 million – while Atkinson’s offering to pay the same legislators $750 million.
 
Naturally the dominoes started falling in the Plebes’ direction with the Governor and the Senate and House Leaders all eyeing the $750 million and saying they’d have to consider the offer ‘very carefully’ – then the unexpected happened.
 
Old Senate bull-moose Tom Apodaca, who runs the State Senate, threw a wrench in the works by telling the News and Observer the Plebes’ takeover bid was dead-on-arrival in the Senate – $750 million or no $750 million.
 
Score Round Two to the Aristocrats.
 

 

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17
What would Jim Gardner say?
 
The silver-haired, golden-tongued GOP gubernatorial candidate had a great issue in 1992, when he was running against Jim Hunt: “Make prisoners work – and work hard,” he said in his TV spots.
 
He was outraged that hardened criminals were idling away their time “watching TV and working out.”
 
We took notice in the Hunt campaign. Just two years earlier, George Herbert Walker Bush had eviscerated Michael Dukakis over Willie Horton and inmate furloughs.
 
(One wit in the campaign suggested that Hunt propose a real get-tough step: “Take away their HBO.”)
 
When it came to crime issues, however, it was tough to out-tough Hunt. He took up the issue himself – along with a raft of crime-fighting proposals. After the election, Hunt ordered a sometimes-reluctant Department of Correction to put prisoners to work. And they did.
 
We made sure the public knew it. Thus the signs: “Inmates Working.”
 
Now, Republican politicians want to do away with inmate labor. The issue has gone from GOP dogma to disposable.
 
Democrats take note: It’s good for prisoners to work. And the public likes it.

 

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17
Over in the State House Republicans hurrahed when five Democrats voted for Speaker Thom Tillis’ budget – at last it looked like Tillis had the votes to override one of Governor Perdue’s vetoes.
 
But flowers bloom then quickly fade.
 
Before the sun set the five Democrats made it perfectly clear to the press their votes for Speaker Tillis’ budget weren’t set in stone. Far from it. They might change. At any moment.
 
Instead of laying aside partisanship it seems these five Democrats were practicing the oldest profession on earth. Selling favors. Or in this case votes. And what these five Democrats got in return landed in the newspapers the next day. 
 
One got a prison in his district. Another got lower ferry fares to Ocracoke Island (which is in his district). And so on. But that’s not all.
 
We are watching the start of a bidding war. Republicans have made the first bid. Next the five Democrats will go to Governor Perdue and say, Well, it looks like you need our votes too. And open the second round of bids.
 
And, of course, the Governor is going to match Thom Tillis and raise him and, after that, it’s safe to assume the five Democrats will discover they just can’t swallow the Republican cuts in education and vote to sustain the Governor’s veto.
 
Then the third round of bidding will begin; and it’s a safe bet before they’re done these five Democrats will have sold the same five votes three times – at least.
 

 

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16
Back in the salad days of the Roman Republic every now and then an absolutely vicious war would break out between the Roman Aristocrats and the Plebes and it looks like we’ve got a similar tussle on our hands here in Wake County.
 
Between two hospitals.
 
Heart surgeries are among the most profitable operations hospitals perform – so when a fox from UNC Hospitals stole into WakeMed’s operating room and made off with a covey of its heart doctors Bill Atkinson, the head rooster at WakeMed, got hopping mad and declared he’d had enough of competing with a state hospital subsidized with taxpayers money.
 
So he set out to take away UNC Hospital’s subsidy.
 
I remember years ago hearing the farm boys and engineers at NC State mocking the “UNC blue-bloods” but there’s a grain of truth in their jibe: There’s a coterie of no longer young men who spent a happy part of their youth in Chapel Hill, and who adore anything with UNC in its name, who are as close to an aristocracy as we have here in North Carolina.
 
And the WakeMed Plebes, bent on taking away UNC Hospitals’ tax subsidy in retribution for making off with their heart doctors, have declared war on one of the Aristocrats’ beloved and long-nurtured institutions.
 
And the Plebes are winning.
 
Because after last fall’s election they figured out one important fact: That the UNC Aristocrats who’ve always worked hand-in-glove with the Democratic Establishment had just lost their clout in the legislature.
 
So the Plebes went to work earnestly making their case to Republican legislators and last week the House Republicans obliged them by cutting every penny of UNC Hopital’s $44 million state subsidy out of Governor Perdue’s budget.
 
Now the Plebes aren’t home free because the State Senate has yet to vote and UNC is sending the All-Stars of its Aristocracy to lobby the Senators and get back their hospital’s $44 million.
 
But for years the new Senate Republican Leaders have been sitting on the back benches watching the same UNC All-Stars cozy up to Marc Basnight and Tony Rand – so this time the Aristocrats may hit a rock.
 
Score Round One for the Plebes.
 

 

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16
We now have clear evidence that political blogging is hazardous to the health of the body politic.
 
Under the Dome led this morning with my blog speculating that the legislature would be in session until December.
 
It was a joke. I was being facetious. (Well, partly facetious. I was serious about legislators being likely to do dumb things.)
 
Here’s what happened. I had dinner last week with a couple of friends who have worked at the legislature and know it well. One of them speculated the session would last all year. Then I remembered the AP reporter who used to be obsessed about the adjournment date. Then, Friday, I was tight on time, so I churned out the blog and posted it.
 
Now there it is under a big headline.
 
Maybe I need to be more careful. Maybe I need to give greater study and more thoughtful consideration to what I post here. Maybe I should remember there’s a risk some people might pay attention to this stuff.
 
Naahh.

 

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16
Bev Perdue and Phil Berger are beginning to sound a bit like a couple whose marriage is on the rocks – she says she’s “disgusted” with him and he’s hunkered down like a harassed husband grumbling she’s done nothing but say, “Do it my way – that’s the only way that I’ll accept.”
 
What started their latest row was Berger’s budget which cuts education even more than House Speaker Thom Tillis’ budget (which the Governor thought was the worst thing she’d ever laid eyes on).
 
Phil Berger and Thom Tillis have one angry woman on their hands and they don’t seem to know exactly what to do with her – she’s left Berger shrugging and muttering, ‘We’re just doing what we promised voters we’d do’ and of course Perdue’s sure to ask voters next, When Phil Berger was out campaigning votes last fall do you remember him ever promising to cut education? I don’t. Because he didn’t.
 
There are terrors that come with winning an election and one is misunderstanding why you won. Thom Tillis and Phil Berger may have fallen into that trap.
 
When the smoke cleared last November they figured, naturally, they won because voters agreed with them. But as hard as it is to admit, last fall voters didn’t vote for Republicans – they voted against Barack Obama. And that’s a big difference. Which I’m afraid Thom Tillis and Phil Berger missed.
 
For example when they went to cutting education they had to show voters why that was a good idea – rather than just assuming they agreed.
 
They didn’t, so now Perdue’s got them over a barrel and on the defensive with Tillis muttering, “We’re cutting 7,000 not 18,000 teachers,” and Phil Berger grumbling, “We’re doing what we were elected to do,” and Perdue shooting back saying, “Your cuts are destroying the public schools” – and guess who’s winning that debate?
 
Berger, at last, tried to make his case for cutting teachers’ assistants in second and third grade classrooms by saying there’s no sign the assistants have raised academic performance but, unfortunately, it’s a case of too little too late.
 
Maybe he should try this: According to the newspaper, Phil Berger wants to spend $7.1 billion on public schools. The newspaper also says there’re 1.5 million students in North Carolina. So Berger wants to spend $4,700 per student – which hardly sounds like destroying the public schools. According to the newspaper Perdue wants to spend approximately $450 million more than Berger – or $5,000 per student.
 
So what the Governor and Berger are arguing over is whether another $300 turns a student into a great well-rounded scholar versus dooming him to perpetual ignorance in ravaged public schools.
 
Now that might be an interesting debate: Phil Berger saying we ought to be able to provide a student with a first class education for $4,700 and Bev Perdue saying there’s no way on earth that’s possible.
 

 

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13
Back in the 1970s, the AP had a legislative reporter in Raleigh named Reese Hart. In those days, AP, UPI and all the major newspapers generated a flood of stories about daily legislative developments. The N&O, where I worked, had a couple of pages every day devoted to the minutiae of bill introductions, committee meetings and floor debates.
 
Amid all the competition, Reese was the acknowledged master of one running story throughout the session: What day the session would adjourn.
 
Not what month, mind you, but what day. The gavels would barely come down after the convening of the session before Reese would begin prowling around, cornering key legislators and pursuing his story.
 
He would produce almost a weekly prediction. “June 22,” one story would predict. The next week: “July 1.” Then maybe the Speaker would speculate that “June 2 is possible.”
 
I don’t know if Reese was running an adjournment-date pool or just eager to get out of Raleigh, but he came to mind the other day when I asked a veteran hallwalker of the General Assembly how long this session will last.
 
“All year,” he responded. Given the looming budget-veto fight and redistricting, the session conceivably could last that long.
 
This is good news for Democrats. First, the longer the legislature stays, the worse it will look. The more dumb bills will emerge, and the more dumb things will be said. And some member inevitably will do something scandalous like fondle a page or get caught driving drunk.
 
Second, the later redistricting passes, the easier it will be for Democrats to tie everything up in the U.S. Department of Justice for civil rights reasons. (A hearty thank-you to Congressman McHenry!) And the more likely it is that Democrats recapture one house in 2012 with a  boost from President Obama and the Charlotte convention.
 
So, in honor of Reese Hart, let’s all say “December 16.”
 

 

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