Here and There

Thursday, September 26, 2013

News delivery: Times, they are a-changin’

*First appeared in the Sept. 26, 2013 edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

When I first sat down to pen this column, I admit that I was undecided as to the topic of this week’s piece. Looking to the news for a little inspiration, I began my casual contemplation with a mental overview of the week’s current events, which led to me flipping on the television to watch Sen. Ted Cruz’s filibuster.

Responding to a ping on my iPhone, I noticed a fellow politico had mentioned me in a tweet about the filibuster…so naturally I started scrolling through my Twitter feed (for those of you not on Twitter, your “feed” is basically the home page that shows all the activity of the people you “follow”). According to this social media outlet, there was – er, is? – a lot going on in Mississippi and the nation.

Sen. Cruz was giving an impassioned filibuster speech, which some on Twitter referred to as a “fauxlibuster” due to a procedural technicality. Delta-born Jim Henson, best known for his creation of The Muppets, would have celebrated his 77th birthday. The Book of Manning premiered on ESPN and was, according to my feed, a moving documentary about Mississippi’s First Family of Football. Election results were coming in for the supervisors’ races in Hinds County, and, perhaps more importantly, for the special election held in Hattiesburg to elect a new mayor. (At the time of this writing, absentee votes were still being counted and no new mayor of the Hub City has yet been declared.)

After only a few minutes of perusing my Twitter feed, it hit me: Technology has drastically changed the landscape of news delivery and, along with it, the way candidates and campaigns communicate with constituents.

I love Twitter and consider it my number one news source. In a matter of minutes, I am able to scroll through my feed and instantly get a sense of what’s going on in the global marketplace, the national political scene, and the neighborhood next to mine.

Facebook and Instagram provide similar opportunities, though I often think of these sites as more social-based than news-based. But that’s the beauty of social networks – each user gets to customize his or her experience.

Since “all politics is local,” campaigns and candidates have seized opportunities to connect with constituents at a more localized level. Political groups continue to focus on newspapers, radio, and television, but recognize the changing landscape of news delivery. If you can’t articulate a message in 140 characters or less, then you’re probably out of luck in the political communications realm.

Last night, Sen. Cruz read tweets from people across the nation who were following the filibuster and using the hashtag “MakeDCListen.” The Twitter platform allowed thousands of Americans who were, I assume, previously unconnected join together in opposition to Obamacare by tweeting. The power of social networks cannot be underestimated.

Obama for America (OFA) is often heralded as the first campaign to truly utilize the various social media platforms for mobilizing campaign efforts: volunteers, get-out-the-vote (GOTV), and messaging. Subsequently, there is an increasing awareness of the need to incorporate social media into marketing strategies, regardless of political leanings.

According to a 2013 Pew Center study, nearly 72 percent of online U.S. adults use social networking sites, a huge increase over the same study in 2005 that showed just 8 percent of adults used these sites. A stand-alone question about Twitter found that 18 percent of online adults are now Twitter users, roughly double the amount of online adults who said they used Twitter in 2010.

And if you assume that all social networkers are young people, consider that six out of ten internet users ages 50-64 participate in social networks, as do 43 percent of those older than 65.

(Of course, the young generation has the largest social media presence, at 89 percent of 18-29 year-olds active online.)

Social networking coupled with the emergence of 24-hour cable news channels means that even a small gaffe by a candidate or official can become a huge political liability. In a political environment driven by breaking news on Twitter and shrill cries from talking heads, rationality can often times go out the window.

The rise of social media as a political messaging tool can be a two-edged sword: It can effectively mobilize supporters, but can also lead to overreactions and the cheapening of political honesty.

For what it’s worth, I think social networks like Twitter provide citizens like me with access to information that, in other eras, would have been nearly impossible or simply too time consuming to find. To borrow a quote from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, technologies like his site and others have “revolutionized how people spread and consume information. We often talk about inventions like the printing press and the television – by simply making communication more efficient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society. They gave more people a voice.”

In this era of boundless information, I can’t help but recall a throwback Dylan tune: “The order is rapidly fadin’, and the first now will later be last, oh the times, they are a-changin’.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

More money for education should require less money for administration

*First appeared in the September 19, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

Legislative budget hearings are nearly complete. By the time you read this column, legislators will have already endured hours of hearings in which agencies ask for more of your tax dollars to pay for things like increased salaries and wireless radios.

Nonetheless, the biggest slice of the state's budgetary pie will go to education, specifically K-12. Within education, the largest line-item is the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, known by most as "MAEP." Around the State Capitol, MAEP has become something of a four-letter word (see what I did there?).

When the MAEP was adopted, it was heralded as a magic formula that would, based on district measures like student population and free or reduced lunches, spit out the amount of money needed to "adequately" fund schools. So then, what's the problem?

Some say the formula is bogus and should be revamped. Others note the Legislature rarely funds MAEP at its required amount. Some say we must ensure the accuracy of the data that's being used as part of the calculation, and yet another school of thought insists we keep the formula but recalculate it on a more regular basis.

On the MAEP spectrum, I think I fall into the category labeled "yes."

Yes, let's look at the formula and make changes if necessary. But let's not forget that study of education funding should run simultaneous to study of educational efficiencies. After all, the money we can save through efficiencies is money we can steer back to the classroom.

Recognizing the serious budget pressures faced by school districts, the Legislature has already taken steps to reduce administrative costs. Under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, Clay County and West Point school districts were merged to achieve efficiency without reducing educational quality.

Clay County, a K-6 school that had its own school district and superintendent, spent $16,795.38 per student in 2011-2012 - the highest in the state. Its consolidation with West Point along with the other six administrative consolidations implemented by this Legislature will save taxpayers millions of dollars that can be re-directed to the classroom.

Mississippi ranks ninth per capita on administrative costs, which means we must do even more to reduce spending. An aggressive shared services strategy focused on areas like transportation, purchasing, and technology could result in dramatic savings.

A Deloitte study looked more comprehensively at the issue, finding that shifting a quarter of the nation's school district tax dollars spent on non-instructional operations to shared services would save up to $9 billion. That's significantly larger than Mississippi's general fund budget and the equivalent of 900 new schools or more than 150,000 new school teachers.

The report notes a Canadian example where two school boards shared bus transportation across district lines, saving $8 million in three years. New Jersey's Middlesex County municipalities have saved five percent on electricity for public buildings through aggregate natural gas purchases.

In Pennsylvania, two school districts entered into an agreement to share the services of a food service director. After the first year, the program netted a profit of $100,000 compared to the previous year which had a combined $20,000 loss. The combined volume had increased the districts' purchasing power, thus reducing food costs.

I took great interest in the report's note about the California Charter Schools Association, which created a Joint Powers Authority to save members money on mandatory costs, such as worker's compensation insurance. The typical charter school over $20,000 per year on this expenditure.

In addition, the CCSA created "CharterBuy" - a program that taps into charter schools' collective buying power to provide them with the best deals on supplies and equipment. The CharterBuy program has saved as much as 50 percent on expected costs in these areas.

Shared services isn't a new concept and has been embraced across the country by both the private and public sectors. With a top ten listing in administrative costs, Mississippi can't afford to focus on increasing education spending without an equally serious focus on reducing money spent outside the classroom.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Budget hearings give glimpse of priorities, challenges faced by Legislature

*First appeared in the Sept. 12, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

It's almost that time again. You know, the thing that only comes once a year. I'm not talking about Christmas; I'm talking about legislative budget hearings.

Starting Monday of next week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee - known as the JLBC - will meet with select state agencies and commissions to hear about their needs, wants, and everything in-between…as long as it relates to money, of course.

And frankly, what doesn’t cost money these days?

Budget hearings may not sound very exciting. The truth is, they’re not. Agency presentations are focused on current spending, projected expenses, and specific budgetary line-items. Not exactly riveting material. But the staff of the Legislative Budget Office (LBO, pronounced “elbow”); lobbyists; researchers; journalists; and just plain old budget hacks like me lap this stuff up.

Hearings start off with an aggressive schedule: First, as usual, there will be an update from the State Personnel Board's executive director who will give lawmakers a briefing on state government employee trends, including demographic breakdowns and salary information.

Following this presentation, members of the JLBC will hear from multiple agencies, including five of which are headed by statewide elected officials (Depts. of Agriculture and Commerce; Treasury; Secretary of State; Attorney General; and Insurance Commission). In times past, these presentations had the potential to get a little testy, as statewide elected officials are not only agency managers but subject to the whims of Mississippi's electorate.

I expect the usual suspects to garner the most attention during these hearings. Major budgets like the Dept. of Education, Institutions of Higher Learning (the agency representing universities), State Community College Board, and Medicaid typically receive the most scrutiny. Together, these agencies account for roughly 70 percent of the state’s general fund budget.

As with every budget hearing cycle, however, other “budgets du jour” exist. For example, the State Dept. of Transportation has the potential to get tense, given the recent calls for increased gasoline taxes and subsequent calls for increased accountability of MDOT spending. It will be interesting to see how much more taxpayer funding, if any, the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) is asking lawmakers to put into the pension plan. Another budget to watch is the Wireless Communication Commission, which was mandated by the Legislature to develop a long-term funding strategy.

Almost as a prelude to budget hearings, the Washington Post’s “GovBeat” blog this week featured a story on Mississippi’s Department of Revenue collecting a significant amount of back taxes – turning an extra $3.5 million appropriation from the Legislature into $80 million.

“By virtually any standard, a nearly 23-fold return on an investment in a year is really good. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s almost unbelievable. But in Mississippi that’s exactly what legislators got” when they gave DOR an extra $3.5 million to hire auditors and collection agents to target the state’s tax gap.

Of course, the increased revenue is attributable to more than additional manpower, but the new boots on the ground certainly helped those taxes find their way back to the state’s bank account.

Speaking of more money than we thought, I should remind you that Mississippi’s most recently completed fiscal year (Fiscal Year 2013) brought in millions more revenue than legislators expected. The current fiscal year which began in July (Fiscal Year 2014) is exceeding financial expectations, though it’s too early to tell if higher collections will continue.

As I’ve written before, higher-than-expected revenue is both a blessing (more money to spend on priorities) and a curse (more pressure to fund agencies and special interest projects) for state lawmakers.

While it’s unclear how legislative leaders will appropriate these extra dollars, one thing is certain: State agencies, lobbyists, special interest groups, and other capitol players will know just how much extra money there is to be spent, and they won’t take their eyes off the monetary prize (which kind of reminds you of that commercial featuring the eyes on the stack of dollars, right?).

The budget hearings only come once a year and officially mark the beginning of the new budget season. They truly are like Christmas to Mississippi’s budget nerds. Merry Hearings, y’all!

NOTE: For a full schedule of the budget hearings, visit

Thursday, September 5, 2013

America: Is the world’s policeman on furlough?

*First appeared in the September 5, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

Lately, it seems that everyone has become a foreign policy expert. We all have strong opinions on Syria; we pretend to understand the geographic, religious, governmental, ethnic, and other complexities of Middle Eastern turmoil; we attempt to possess a strong handle on military strategy.

I'm just as guilty as the pretenders, as I have chosen to write a column on this very subject. However, rather than take a side, I'd like to look at the larger question that has plagued more than one President: What is America's role in the world?

Does the United States - the world's remaining "superpower" - have a responsibility to serve as the world's policeman? Or, should we temper our military efforts, engaging only in those conflicts which have a direct relationship to our economic, military, or other national interests?

President Obama is on a mission to answer this question - well, sort of. He believes that chemical weapons (sarin, specifically) were used by the Assad-led regime against the Syrian rebels. He has previously said chemical warfare was his "red line" that, once crossed, would guarantee American involvement in the Middle Eastern conflict. Now our Commander-In-Chief says that Congress must give him approval to act before he will direct any military action in Syria.

To be honest, the President hasn’t been especially decisive on the issue. His actions don’t reflect his words. In a joint press conference with the Swedish Prime Minister, the President reiterated his belief that America must act, saying that failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons puts “America and Congress’s credibility on the line.” President Obama said our sincerity was at risk particularly because America gives "lip service" to the notion that international norms - such as the ban of chemical warfare - are important.

Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt agreed that "in the face of such barbarism, the international community cannot be silent" and that despite the hesitance of other countries, the United States has a larger responsibility to the world.

So, Americans are perceived to have a larger responsibility than others to act, according to both our President and the Swedish Prime Minister. But is this perception reality?

The President says we must act; that we have a great responsibility to act...yet he has stalled military action by seeking congressional approval – an unusual precedent set by the chief executive. For an executive to cede power back to Congress in this manner gives the appearance of weakness.

It reminds me of former President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy mantra, "peace through strength." The popular President who was successful in ending the Cold War said this about peacekeeping: "We know that peace is the condition under which mankind was meant to flourish. Yet peace does not exist of its own will. It depends on us, on our courage to build it and guard it and pass it on to future generations."

Instead of embracing peace through strength, President Obama has been indecisive, sending mixed messages to our friends and our enemies both at home and abroad.

Further, President Obama drew the Biblical line in the sand at the use of chemical warfare yet, to date, no action has been taken. This has not only portrayed our leader as wavering and our nation as militarily tepid, but has also shown the world that its default global policeman is on furlough under the current administration.

Even our citizens are weary of our inherited role as peacekeeper, with nearly 59 percent opposing Syrian involvement according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll.

Does this indicate a change in attitudes, or is it simply a result of a war-fatigued nation? Will it be permanent, or will America regain its status as international law enforcer in future years?

Only time will tell how the current Syrian crisis plays out and how the United States will deal with this and future conflicts. While our nation may be moving away from its role as the world's policeman, I think it's important for our citizens and our leaders to remember America's unique role in global conflicts.

We are the beacon of hope; the protectorate of what is just and fair; we fight the good fight...or at least that is our global perception. But void of strength and absent a unified vision, we will be unable to maintain the respect, fear, and strategic allegiances that accompany the global policeman.

Remember former President Teddy Roosevelt's big stick policy - that is, "speak softly and carry a big stick." America can only afford to speak softly if we've got the big stick to defend ourselves – and are willing to use it. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this President is willing to take that action.