Apr 12 2014

‘Bangers, Budgets and Bosses…a week in Memphis

So it was kind of a weird week in Memphis. That’s not unusual I guess, but the way things worked out leaves a couple of bad tastes in my mouth…so, I’ve taken to writing aging for now.

‘Bangers

Open carry is one of those things the NRA and groups like it have been pushing just about everywhere in the South.

I’m not a fan of open carry laws because I just don’t think its necessary, and when you remove the requirement that people get proper training to carry a firearm in public, you endanger public safety and the safety of the person carrying the firearm.

On the other hand, I’ve always found the argument by the “conceal-carry” set that a concealed firearm is somehow a “crime deterrent” disingenuous. If its concealed, its more likely you will have it stolen when someone with a gun in their hand gets the jump on you. If its concealed its less likely to give a potential armed criminal pause. If its out there in the open, it may cause someone to think a little before they act…or just kill you first and take your gun to continue whatever violence they intend to commit.

In any case, the bill passed the State Senate, but according to the linked report, will die in the State House because:

“Every gang-banger in Memphis will end up packing. Can you imagine?” – Rep. Steve McDaniel

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

McDaniel lives in a little town on I-40 over 100 miles from the nearest “Memphis gang banger”, but apparently there’s enough fear of such a thing in tiny Parker’s Crossroads, TN, that it would stop him for falling in line with the Tennessee Firearms Assn..

It probably helps that the filing deadline has passed and there’s no time to primary him they way they did Debra Maggart.

Betsy brought up the problem with that logic, though I’m not really sure what her point is…

But my buddy Cardell Orrin wins the day with this response to the specter of an “Open Carry Tennessee”…

I have no idea if this will pass the State House, but I hope it doesn’t.

All this proposal will do is lead to more accidental shootings and other mishaps, of which there are already plenty in this country.

Budgets

Its budget season, which is one of my favorite times of year…because you get to see policy both in action and inaction (see what I did there).

Tennessee Budget

The State rubber stamped Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget down to the dollar…leaving out promised money for teacher raises, tuition freezes, and other critical stuff. A proposed additional $2m dollars for rape kit funding was also struck down, because…Memphis. State lawmakers just hate us for some reason.

Shelby County Government Budget

Shelby County Government also released a proposed budget which was praised for lowering taxes and providing raises for County employees.

Looking into the guts of the proposal, it seems that while overall revenue is down by about $53m (due primarily to fewer federal government transfers) property tax collections are projected to increase by just under $2m (which accounts for the penny).

470 employees will be lost, most of them (440) due to the end of the Shelby Co. Head Start program. I haven’t seen news about who, if anyone, has received the federal funds for that program.

This is an election year, so a tax cut, even a small one, is a political instrument as much as anything else. After last year’s hike, any cut will be trumpeted to the hills.

In reality, this budget is a continuation budget. There’s no new great vision or direction to be seen. There’s no great look at what the County Administration wants the County to look like going forward other than “the same”. And with all the structural problems the County has (that they largely ignore) its hard to feel really good about this budget…unless all you care about is the political viability of using a tiny tax cut as a means to garner votes.

Shelby County Schools Budget

The County Schools also released their initial budget proposal to the County Commission to accolades from the body. The budget includes a reported 2316 real job losses and 2380 jobs that move to the six municipal schools.

The real way to look at this budget, is not against last year, but the last year of MCS, since the remaining SCS schools are primarily former MCS schools. Here’s a top level breakdown:

12-13 MCS 14-15 SCS
Employees 13,031 12,818
Enrollment 104,829 117,154
Pupils per employee 8.04 9.14
General Fund 901,799,827 961,298,645
Per student expenditure $8602.58 $8205.43

It should be noted, these numbers represent a “top level” funding and employee count, rather than an actual representation of where and how the money will be spent. So while the “per pupil” and “per employee” numbers seem to be going in the wrong direction, the reality of that will be determined by how the real budget works out…and some deeper digging into the guts of the numbers.

This represents the lion’s share of education funding for the County, but a true picture of education funding won’t be available until the six municipalities present their budgets to the County Commission. How those six seek to claim the remaining 20.6% of county money could possibly be an interesting fight.

University of Memphis

One budget I haven’t paid that much attention to in previous years is the U of M budget. But its an important one, that represents nearly $500m in spending in the area.

This year’s budget represents the first full year of re-prioritizing the University in the image of interim President Brad Martin…whom one must assume is acting on behalf of his friend and former employee, Gov. Bill Haslam.

What’s not certain is if the faculty will endorse the proposal, or if tenured members of the faculty will use their relative safety to fight back against these budget cuts and other proposed changes to the University.

Of course, tenure or not, a certain level of caution should be exercised, as the State government has shown a great deal of disdain for tenure generally (particularly in public education) and probably wouldn’t hesitate to change the rules to suit their desire to quash anything that challenges their supermajority status.

This will be a new area for me this year, but I think its as important as anything. The future of the U of M will play a big role in the future of the County.


The City of Memphis is set to release its budget proposal on Tuesday, so nothing to report there right now. Also, if this year follows previous years, the proposal itself won’t look much like the final budget, as priorities and funds are shifted.

Bosses

A Commercial Appeal article published after Thursday’s Democratic Mayoral Debate, quotes District Attorney candidate Judge Joe Brown as saying he’s something akin to a political boss. Brown was answering a question about the value of his endorsement in the upcoming May primary.

Here’s the actual quote:

If you’re a candidate, is there some value in having Joe Brown on your side? Are you hearing that a lot?

“Yes. In other words, who’s going to make the tough decisions? Alright, you want to do this, you want to do that. You can either work it out yourselves or if you can’t, I pick who I’m going to support. When I support you, that is important to your candidacy. … I’m not going to endorse in every race, but when there’s a big knock-down, drag-out, I’m trying to” — he was interrupted here by a well-wisher.

“So in other words, I smooth it out,” he said, returning to the conversation. “It’s called being boss.”

You view yourself in that role?

“No, that’s what they want,” he said.

Who? Bryan Carson?

“Sorta, kinda,” he said. Then, he characterized how the party talked him into running for district attorney, and his reasons for seeing opportunity there against incumbent Republican Amy Weirich. – via the Commercial Appeal

There’s no question that DA candidate Joe Brown could play a major role in the outcome of the August election. But some things are far less certain:

1. Brown’s influence on a May primary in which he has no competition. The May primary election has historically had incredibly low turnout.

2. The balance between Brown’s influence and the organizing efforts of the three Mayoral candidates (along with the other candidates in the primary contests).

3. Brown’s actual role as a boss.

Shelby County Democratic Party Chair Bryan Carson had this to say about the latter:

“He doesn’t have a role,” Carson said, adding a few moments later, “he has no influence on the Shelby County Democratic Party.”

So, not a boss?

“That was his characterization,” Carson said. “What I did, we needed a candidate for the top of the ticket.” – via the Commercial Appeal

I have a big problem with the characterization of anyone as a “boss”.

First of all, the bosses of old had patronage jobs to toss around. While this is still the case (to some degree) the depth of that influence has diminished in a world of greater scrutiny and dwindling budgets.

Secondly, Brown not only has no such jobs to dole out, but also hasn’t really been involved in local politics in any measurable way until recently.

Finally, the notion of a boss is a rally point for the opposing party. August is set to be a sleeper…except for local races, and for Brown to give the County GOP anything to rally on other than their slate of candidates isn’t particularly helpful.

But there’s another reason…the idea of a “boss” gives the perception of corruption…because of all of the things I listed above. That’s something we really don’t need.

We don’t need a return to the era of “bosses”, despite what some seem to think. The “boss” era in Memphis politics may be looked back on as a golden age, but it also set up all kinds of trouble that we’re still dealing with. More than I care to get into at this point.

Truth be told, there is no one in elective office in Shelby County, with the possible exception of State Sen. Mark Norris that has the political power to be called a “boss”. The political power structure is too diffuse to sustain such a person.

Further, I would argue that no elected official is seeking or could in any way lay claim to the title. There’s too much dissent, and not enough carrots or sticks being used to execute such power.

So while the notion of a “boss” and the perceived power and stability that title might hold for some may seem attractive, it just isn’t likely to happen here again. That’s something that presents both a challenge for the future, and a net positive for those who are willing to forge alliances to get needed things done in the community.

Unfortunately, there remains a “boss mentality” in the area…something that will take a long time for us to get over. The kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” that many feel for the era of bosses, and the new era of the unspoken “bosses” that play a large role in anointing political leaders in the area, is a bigger problem to deal with.

That’s another post for another time. But suffice it to say, we don’t need another boss, and Brown, even if he may think of himself as one…isn’t one.

Jan 02 2014

No one’s gonna build a door for you

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

Don't wait your turn...TAKE your turn

Don’t wait your turn…TAKE your turn

Opportunity is a funny thing. It’s a bird that never perches…as one man put it. It is fluid, and dynamic, and fleeting.

You often don’t know you’ve missed it until its gone.

So today’s news that Sara Kyle won’t seek the office of Governor, seems in a lot of ways like a missed opportunity…for a lot of people, and not just Mrs. Kyle.

Let me first say, I don’t begrudge Kyle her decision. She has real-world things to deal with…and that’s something everyone involved knew from the beginning. Its also not surprising because as the proprietor of the Draft Sara Kyle website, I hadn’t heard a thing from any of the folks that motivated me to spend my time or energy on the project since September.

I’m not begrudging them either…just sayin’.

But it does give Democrats a teachable moment…if nothing else, and that is “Don’t wait your turn”. Because time moves fast. Faster than you think. And opportunity moves faster…especially when you’re sitting still.

And the unfortunate thing about Kyle’s potential but not realized entrance into the Gubernatorial race is that for many people (but not all), the opportunity to mount a challenge has passed them by.

That doesn’t mean Democrats won’t have a candidate. It just means it will be harder for them to get organized in time.

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. – Milton Berle

Terry Adams (D) for US Senate

Terry Adams (D) for US Senate

Terry Adams is a Democrat…challenging Lamar Alexander for one of Tennessee’s US Senate seats.

I met Terry in September at Jackson Day.

He’s a young, successful guy that has ties to all three divisions in the state.

And even though, back in September, the odds of him having a chance against Lamar! looked long, he did it anyway. He built a door.

See, back then all folks could think about was that Lamar!, a former Governor of Tennessee, US Dept. of Education Secretary, and two term Senator was too well loved by the state to warrant a challenge.

Then in early December, a Vanderbilt University Poll found that Lamar!’s approval rating sat at just 49%.

Now, if Adams had waited for his opportunity, it might have whizzed by. He built a door.

It still remains to be seen if Adams can mount a full throttle challenge to Lamar!. As of Sept. 30th, Lamar! had some $2.8m in his campaign coffers. But the point is, Adams wouldn’t even have a prayer if he had waited for his opportunity.

He has one now, and I hope that you will consider supporting him in his campaign.

Building your door

Too often I hear people talk about “waiting their turn”. This is a notion based on the old days of politics when bosses ran things. There might be bosses in the GOP, but the Democratic party is a free for all right now in dire need of leadership, and with lots of opportunity for fresh faces.

There’s no reason you can’t be one of them.

Friday, January 3rd is the first day you can pull a petition for state or federal office. There are 99 State House seats, 17 State Senate Seats, 1 Gubernatorial, 1 Senatorial, and 9 US Congressional races that are waiting for people to file. And don’t get me started on all the local races that will be open statewide this year. For many of them, you can already pull a petition!

Filing is easy. Just 25 signatures from registered voters in the district you seek to represent. Click the link for a more detailed description of the requirements.

But it doesn’t happen if you don’t decide to build a door and take your opportunity.

Democrats in Tennessee have got to stop waiting and start building doors if we want to find our way out of the woods. That may make some of the old guard uncomfortable…but then, you’re not likely to move when you’ve made a permanent indention in your cushiony seat now, are you?

Oct 15 2013

Precinct Consolidation Round 2

Posted by Steve Ross in elections

Map of precincts to be consolidated. Red precincts fold into blue.

Map of precincts to be consolidated. Red precincts fold into blue.

It was last June…the last time the specter of precinct consolidation reared it’s ugly head.

At that time I linked to a lot of things…including the intention to cut the number of precincts to 150 from 236.

Last year’s precinct consolidation meant many voters didn’t get cards with their new location until the day of the election. It can’t have helped that the decision was made just a month before early voting was to begin…or that the body was so far behind on their redistricting procedure they fouled up the August state primary…leading to threats from the State Election Commission, a rebuke from the state Comptroller for shoddy management, two overturned elections, a further fouled up November election, and yet another rebuke…this time from the County.

Quite a resume, no?

So its probably easy to understand why someone might look at the current move with a skeptical eye.

Election Commission Meeting

The Election Commission is reportedly meeting tomorrow, Wednesday, October 15th at the Election Operations Center at 980 Nixon. I have no idea what’s on the agenda because it doesn’t appear on the website, nor does a meeting notice. Normal time for meetings is 4:30, but I recommend you call ahead…just to be sure. The number is 222-1200.

As you can see, transparency is highly valued at the Election Commission…even the minutes are months behind.

But according to sources this list of precinct consolidations will be up for discussion.

The 58,000 voters in the precincts that would be shut down, are 74% Democratic voters. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering the partisan breakdown of the Election Commission, and the general partisan leanings of the county (which is at least 70% Democratic in November elections).

But the partisan leanings of the precincts, isn’t really the issue…its the disclosure to the voters.

There hasn’t been any…again.

If you’re concerned about these, or any other actions of the Election Commission, I recommend you go to one of their meetings. Maybe even ask a question or two. Public meetings aren’t sexy, but they are where things get done. If you don’t like what’s happened and what’s happening, you owe it to yourself to go. Nothing happens for people who don’t show up.

Here’s the information again.

Election Operations Center
980 Nixon
Wednesday, October 14th, 4:30PM.

The meeting is open to the public.

Aug 19 2013

On the Whalum Decision…lots of questions

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Memphis Politics, Shelby County

Ed. Note:Corrected issue of appointment to fill Reginald Porter’s seat.

Kenneth Whalum

Kenneth Whalum

The morning’s announcement of a decision in the contested election results of School Board Dist. 4 brings up a lot of issues just weeks before the School Board is set to shift from 23 members to 7.

The first issue is the now upcoming election. When will it be and what assurances will be made that the same problems will not mar the upcoming election?

Despite the assurances that the November election would be trouble free, a report from February showed that more than 400 voters in one precinct received the wrong ballot in one precinct that either mistakenly had, or didn’t have the City’s gas tax referendum.

But the upcoming election may not be the biggest fish to fry, or knot to untangle, and the questions could come before Judge Mays to decide.

The first question: Who, if anyone, will occupy the seat after the school board contracts to seven districts on September 1st. Judge Mays has already determined that one seat could be left vacant until next year…the seat formerly held by Reginald Porter. Updated:The County Commission is set to appoint someone to fill the seat of Reginald Porter on September 9th…assuming it doesn’t get delayed. Will the Judge change course and allow an election on that seat at the same time? If the election is held in conjunction with the City sales tax referendum on Pre-K funding, ganging up those two seats might not be a bad idea, and would save some money for sure.

The second question, and perhaps more thorny, is that of decisions made by the school board since the certification of the August 2012 election. As Leftwingcracker points out, many of the decisions were narrow, by one vote. Will those decisions stand now that the election has been deemed irrevocably damaged or will the Judge call them into question? That’s a knot that could take a long while to deal with.

I would be surprised if Whalum didn’t ask Judge Mays to rule on these issues. Upon hearing the ruling from Chancellor Kenny Armstrong, that was the first thing I thought he would do. That’s what I would have done.

But the biggest question, one that goes well beyond the scope of the School Board, is who in the world can trust this Election Commission to do their job at this point. Between the August 2012 election that gave wrong ballots to thousands of voters and the November 2012 election that did the same to 400 voters in one precinct alone (mentioned above), who in their right mind actually thinks this Election Commission, and more importantly, this Election Administrator can do the job and conduct an election free of these kinds of completely avoidable errors.

There’s no question the Republican Shelby County Election Commissioners won’t have the guts to do what their counterparts in Nashville did just a few months ago. If anything, the local Republican Election Commissioners have doubled down in their support of Richard Holden, who they continue to allow to spread mistruths about the how and why of the problems in the August 2012 election, even after being rebuked by the Secretary of State’s office and a Comptroller’s report.

The next couple of days should be interesting. Between the school and election issues, I can’t help but believe we haven’t heard the end of this issue…and the issues surrounding it.

Nov 07 2012

Securing the Vote

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

Election Day is over, and despite some local reports of problems with too few machines in some places and malfunctioning machines in others…it seems to have gone pretty smoothly. Regardless of your political bent, we should all be thankful for that.

It wasn’t that way for everyone, as the video to the left shows. No matter how many times this voter pushes one button, another lights up. It’s pretty freaky if you ask me and more than a little troubling.

This video is from Pennsylvania, not Tennessee. While the problem here is more likely a calibration issue, it certainly doesn’t do much to make folks feel like their vote is secure.

The truth is, the last thing people want is to feel like something shady is going on. That’s the rationale for all kinds of laws that impact voting.

The issue with touch-screen voting is and always has been the lack of a verifiable paper trail. As someone who works with computers all day, and so many of us do these days, we’ve all experienced the “I just lost everything” problem at one time or another. Touchscreen voting machines are just computers. In the absence of a paper trail, we might never know when that happens with touchscreen machines when they catastrophically fail.

In 2006 we made an investment in these machines. It was a bad investment if you ask me. At the time it took Democratic support to get these machines. I get that. But this wasn’t a strictly partisan issue then and it isn’t one now. I think both parties agree that unverifiable elections are unacceptable regardless of who’s in charge.

Since 2006, the company that first made the machines, Diebold, has gotten out of the election business, and many states have moved back to paper ballots.

Considering all the challenges we have here in Shelby Co., the fear about a correct count shouldn’t be one of them. We need to join the two Tennessee counties that got it right in the first place and the many states and local election commissions nationwide that are making the change and adopt paper ballots.

It just makes good sense, and right now is the right time.

Our next County-wide election isn’t until May of 2014…the County Primary. That gives us 17 months to prepare.

This won’t be the only change at the Election Commission. Word on the street is that there’s a top to bottom internal review in the near future, not to mention the Election Review Committee that the County Commission empaneled (of which I am a member). Integrating the shift to paper ballots in the reform process is both an efficient and intelligent way to restore confidence in the process.

There’s a lot more that needs to be done at the Election Commission, but removing one of the key sticking points, the lack of a verifiable paper trail, is one way to begin restoring confidence in the institution tasked with executing our elections.

We should all push to adopt paper ballots now. Here’s how to contact the members of the Shelby County Election Commission:

Chairman Robert Meyers

Norma Lester

George Monger

Dee Nollner

Steve Stamson