Moving Day!

As of the above date, this blog has been moved to a new URL. The move was necessary because I am adding some new features/functions and my old host just didn’t have the horsepower to accomplish my goal(s). Check back soon (at the new URL!) to see the new stuff.

So please change your pointers/bookmarks/whatever to reflect the new URL – which is:

middleborder.net

If you have problems/questions with the switch, drop me a note or comment and I’ll try to help – and thanks to all those who have supported my blogging efforts – know that your attentions are greatly appreciated.

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Lincoln Journal-Star, Hadley and the Filibuster

wall

While no one should be surprised these days by the Lincoln JournalStar’s unnatural and deeply disturbing affection for liberal miscreancy, this time Dame LJS has bent so far to the left she can see up her own skirts. An editorial dated November 29, 2015 lauds none other than Kearney’s own wolfish/sheepish state senator – the redoubtable Galen Hadley – for coming up with (their words) “a reasonable plan for trimming the impact of filibusters on the Legislature.” And, as current Speaker of the Unicameral, our doughty senator has vowed to “use his authority” to accomplish his ends – in other words he intends nothing less than unilateral truncation of opposing viewpoints.

The idea, allegedly conceived by RINO-in-chief Hadley, calls for “a cloture motion to shut off debate after six hours, rather than the eight hours that has traditionally been allowed.” Seems those nasty conservatives have managed to extinguish lots of collectivist-inspired legislation with that extra two hours of debate. Among those bills smothered in their cribs are such delightful neo-marxist offerings as “repeal of the death penalty, allowing immigrants brought to the United States as children to get driver’s licenses, wind energy, returning Nebraska to a winner-take-all system for awarding electoral votes, and requiring voters to present identification …” Who knew that two hours could be that lethal? One wonders if Hadley et al, including the JournalStar, ever considered the possibility that such legislation as that mentioned above is simply, well , remarkably bad policy … and was opposed by the wielders of the filibuster (“filibusterers?”) on reasonable grounds. No – probably not …

Hadley may be a lot of things, but stoopid ain’t one of ‘em. The Unicameral liberal class (of which Hadley is a card-carrying, dues-paying, T-shirt wearing member) understands fully that one of the most effective ways to get their agenda through an already structurally crippled legislative body such as the Unicameral is to limit substantive discussion and debate to the fullest possible extent – and his latest brainstorm, with apologies to Pink Floyd, is just another brick in that inexorable progressive wall.

The Founders, especially Madison and Hamilton in The Federalist,  went to considerable lengths to explain the virtues of extended debate and a resultant thorough winnowing of proposed legislation, arguing that multiplying the diversity of interests as well as encouraging lengthy discussion is the key to mitigating potentially dangerous majority factions. Yet here stands Senator Hadley attempting to short-circuit an already dysfunctional legislative process by promising parliamentary chicanery to limit deliberation that has been demonstrably effective in thwarting many of the liberals’ perverse initiatives.

And the P Street Pixie Press is effusively onboard, supporting not only Hadley’s nefarious scheme but promoting one of their own. Quoting from the editorial:

The editorial board is on record in favor of a more drastic reform to lower the number of votes required to end a filibuster from 33 to 30 … In the view of the board, a 30-vote requirement is sufficient to protect the ability of minority to restrain the majority from passing extreme measures.

Good to know the LJS mavens are looking out for the interests of the poor and down-trodden.

From Federalist 10:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government …the majority … must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control….

Simply put, what Madison is saying is, given man’s natural tendency toward self-aggrandizement, we must depend in large part on structural/organizational checks to prevent legislative cozening – and that surely includes ample discussion/disputation over any proposed laws. I would expect both politicians and newspapers to recognize and honor that simple principle.

Be well.

 

Posted in Political, Unicameral | 1 Comment

Back To The Future

capitol

George Washington was not a fan of political parties. He believed strongly that factionalism, from whatever quarter, was a pernicious, even corrosive, influence on the new nation’s politics. A whiff of his disdain for the sordid machinations of political parties may be discerned in his Farewell Address:

“The disorders and miseries which result [from partisan politics] gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

Several of the other FF’s also routinely deplored political partisanship, including James Madison (see Federalist 10), John Dickinson (The Cost of Liberty, William Murchison), James Wilson (The Founding Conservatives, David Lefer) and others.

In the interest of full disclosure I should here note that I myself for many years have, in this space and elsewhere, inveighed lustily against codified political factionalism – but, in the last few years, I have come to believe that organized support for a cause, even to the point of chauvinism, is not necessarily a bad thing.

While I am loath to disagree even minimally with the Fathers of Our Country, it seems to me that they may have been fixated only on the brambles, and, in their single-mindedness, missed the blossom. I grant that contemporary party politics can and often do become rough-and-tumble, to put it charitably, but it is also undeniable that no more effective mechanisms for vetting and characterizing prospective office-holders (and initiatives) exist than political parties running at full tilt.

For example, if an organized party endorses and supports a candidate, we can be reasonably sure that said candidate adheres rather closely to the philosophy and policy preferences of that party. If the Dill Pickle Party gets behind Fred Farfle, the voters, even if they never heard of Fred before last Tuesday, can be reasonably confident that he won’t go for Gherkins in a big vote on the floor. Put another way, voters over time have come to know what a particular party stands for, and can have a reasonable expectation that any candidate sanctioned by that party will generally follow the same credo.

My point is simply that a political party of whatever stripe generally provides a valuable “winnowing” function for an electorate that is notoriously averse to obtaining its own accurate information. It can be rightly claimed that this could result in inaccurate and/or misleading data being foisted on Joe Sixpack but this is less likely than might be assumed.

Intelligence concerning a candidate, whether positive or negative, will be viewed by the opposing party as injurious to their interests and every effort will be made by them to counter/correct the claim(s). To use a relatively recent example, if a candidate falsely claims to be a decorated hero who spent time in a well-known theater of war, it becomes a relatively simple exercise for the opposition to expose such prevarication. I do not mean to imply that this process is perfect, but it is surprisingly effective.

Said all that to say this – the patron saint of the Unicameral, Senator Norris, was thunderously explicit about his distaste for political partisanship, crediting it with every form of societal misfortune but sun spots and pink-eye. Norris is characteristically muzzy as to his actual reasons for disliking factionalism, but I suspect he simply didn’t like anything that interfered with the implementation of his Progressive vision – and mainstream Republicanism certainly did that (not to mention moderate Democrats’ ideology, whose numbers in the plains states were significant even back in Norris’s time).

Today, thanks to Norris-inspired institutionalized “non-partisanship” in our state legislature, We The People are essentially prevented (with malice aforethought I am convinced), or at least mightily hindered, from discovering what a legislative candidate’s true political proclivities may be. One need look no further than a few well-known names in the current Unicameral to understand the game that is played. The acronym “RINO” has been over-used, but it is appropriate here.

Sure, the candidates register as Republicans (candidates from out-state Nebraska would have to be morons to register as anything else), or Mugwumps or whatever, but there is no force that holds them accountable to that commitment. They are free to pursue whatever course of action their hidden ideology or whimsy or cronyism dictates – secure in the knowledge that no political price will be paid, because much of such action takes place in secret … plus which, they are, after all, “nonpartisan.”

So, as previously promised, here are a few suggestions that I believe would strengthen/improve what now passes for a legislature in Nebraska:

  1. Reinstate bicameralism; failing that, increase the size of the legislature to at least three times its current membership. In legislating, too many cooks do not spoil the broth – but they may keep it from being inedible.
  2. At least quadruple the salary of state senators/representatives. We sorely need to attract increased numbers of young, vital legislators. The current salary level of $12,000 per annum makes that essentially impossible – we need to reduce the number of  folks looking for a retirement project, who don’t need to be concerned about money.
  3. Reintroduce partisanship – let’s establish at least some level of accountability.
  4. Ban secret balloting – at once and forever, in all aspects of the legislative process – and allow any member to demand a recorded roll call vote on any issue, on any motion, at any time, in committee or on the floor.
  5. Limit the number of bills that can be introduced during any session to something like 100 – make it slow and difficult to pass any law. To paraphrase an old saw: “Legislate in haste, repent at leisure.”

I am not naive enough to believe that any of the above proposals will be adopted anytime soon, but I believe that our state has suffered greatly under the travesty perpetrated by Norris and his chums, and I would end by reminding everyone of the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca –

“Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum: ‘to err is human, but to persist in the error is diabolical.'”

Be well.

Posted in George Norris, Political, Unicameral | Leave a comment

One House Legislature … One Horse Government

george_norris

George W. Norris

Nebraskans are a peculiar lot; perhaps because we lack soaring mountains, or miles of white sand beaches, or even forested expanses (Halsey and J. Sterling Morton notwithstanding), we are obliged to take pride in somewhat less splashy features – like the Sand Hills, bazillions of cranes that defecate their way across our state each spring, and, of course, our unicameral legislature (“The only one in the US, don’tcha know”).

Well, I have lived in the Sand Hills; you can take my word for it that they’re nothing special – unless you happen to own a couple hundred thousand acres, and even then it can be a long time till spring. As for the cranes … thing is, once you’ve watched them “dancing” for ten or fifteen minutes, that’s about it – that’s pretty much all they’ve got. So it’s back to town for happy hour at the Dew Drop Inn.

Which brings us to the Unicameral. As every Nebraska pre-schooler knows, the single body legislature was invented, exalted and implemented by George W. Norris, super-senator and apotheosis of all things Progresssively political (pun intended). Well, it turns out that this isn’t 100% true – but more about that in a minute. Sadly for St. George’s legacy, the lace on the Unicameral bonnet is becoming more worn and threadbare with each passing legislative session.

Even though Norris has sucked up all the credit for more than 70 years, the real heavy lifting for the unicameral concept here in Huskerland was done by one John N. Norton, a Polk County Democrat pol, who unsuccessfully pushed the notion at least a half dozen times in the teens and twenties, using every nomothetic maneuver in the book from constitutional amendments to bills in the (then) bicameral legislature, to public petition drives. All failed, some more spectacularly than others. Good to know there was at least a semblance of common sense even back then.

By now the perceptive reader will be asking what the attraction of a single house lawmaking body was for those hoary old collectivist types. Good question, Sparky – but the answers are not easily discerned; perhaps Norris et al truly believed the unicameral approach would provide better lawmaking, hence better government (though I will show below just how mistaken this idea is). More likely, I think, is the fact that liberals, even antediluvian liberals (remember – Democrats are prototypical liberals, and Progressives, of whom Norris was the Grand Poobah, are just heavily ruralized Democrats) believe at a primordial level that the path to power is open only to those who direct and control the legislative process. And control is most easily accomplished when the process

a) involves as few participants as possible,

b) is not subject to oversight by external interests or authority (such as political parties),

c) can be conducted with as little transparency as possible, and

d) makes it easy for members to cloak their true motivations.

If you’re paying attention, you should have noticed that I just described our small, nonpartisan Unicameral to the proverbial “T”.

No one will ever make the mistake of calling George W. Norris a deep thinker; in fact, reference is repeatedly made in both his autobiography [Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris] and Richard Lowitt’s three-volume biography of Norris’s disdain for political philosophy – a subject he viewed as silly cerebrating, bearing little relationship to the real world. Norris was a thoroughgoing pragmatist and never ventured too far out of the shallow end of the intellectual pool, which helps to explain why he went so far wrong with his reasoning in support of a single house legislature.

Norris listed a number of “reasons” positing the superiority of the unicameral; I will deal with each of these in turn.

  • Smaller (fewer members) was better, i.e., cheaper (fewer salaries, less operational expense, etc.), and less duplication of effort (he said). While it is undeniable that 43 members (the number originally set in 1937) cost less than 133 (the number of members of the pre-1937 bicameral), it is by no means clear that the value of the “product” (legislation) as measured in dollars spent per unit of benefit is enhanced. In fact, there is persuasive evidence that the reverse is true (see, for example, Dr. James Rogers’s excellent article in Creighton Law Review, Vol. 33, entitled “Unicameral Legislative Systems: A Positive Theoretic and Historical Analysis”). That report states, in part, “While unicameralism may carry with it some benefits – most notably in the form of (modest) cost savings from the elimination of one legislative chamber – there are no discernable [sic], constitutionally relevant process advantages that unicameralism confers that could offset the process deficiencies that unicameralism introduces.”
  • Norris claimed that the bicameral model was copied from the British model of parliament, i.e., Commons and Peers, and as such was inappropriate for Americans since the social, political and economic bases for the English two house system do not exist in the United States. He argued further that state mimicry of a federal system (which is/was bicameral) is out of place since it was adopted solely as a compromise between large and small states – a situation clearly not applicable to a single state. Both points are valid if we assume the premises are valid – but that is a BIG if. The Founders had little if any reason to emulate the political system of a country with whom they had just fought a war. As Rogers points out, the Founders “adopted bicameralism in spite of the British example rather than because of the example. Further, the claim that U.S. bicameralism is modeled on British bicameralism ignores the fundamental organizational differences distinguishing the two types of bicameralism.” Moreover, historian Marc Kruman has concluded, after an extensive study of Revolutionary-era legislative models, that “Americans of the founding era rejected the notion that the Senate should represent property and the house, persons.” Speaking to Norris’s second point (that the states copied the federal Congressional bicameral model), it is simply wrong, since the original state constitutions that featured bicameral models were written before the 1787 Constitution was even drafted, so it is difficult to see how they “copied” it. Also pertinent is the fact that prior to 1787, when the nation was operating under the Articles of Confederation, the national congress was unicameral, so it is obvious that the states selected the bicameral model in spite of the national unicameral body. So, again to quote Rogers, “Norris attacked a form of bicameralism that simply had not existed in the U.S. States.
  • Norris contended that second legislative chambers were basically aristocratic, non-democratic institutions; in other words he conflated British parliamentary bicameralism (“Commons” vs “Lords”) with true “republican” bicameralism as found in the US, in which the same electors elect the members of both houses. Again, he was operating under false premises.
  • Next, Norris despised Conference Committees (committees appointed to reconcile differing versions of a bill between the two houses of a bicameral body), charging that they were secretive, offered no records of their proceedings and were not subject to oversight by the full legislative body. In response, let me quote at length from Rogers: “First, while Norris insisted that conference committees are a necessary evil for bicameral systems, the truth is quite the opposite. There are any number of alternative reconciliation mechanisms for bicameral disagreements that do not involve conference committees. In fact, the New Jersey legislature, for example, has not used a conference committee since 1973, and 34 of the 52 national bicameral legislatures do not use conference committees to reconcile bicameral disagreements. Further, contrary to textbook descriptions of ‘how a bill becomes law,’ few bills actually go to conference committees. For example, of the 301 bills enacted by one chamber of the last Nebraska bicameral legislature in 1935, only 26 (8.6 percent) went to a conference committee. The numbers are similar for other states and at the national level”. And, I would add, continue to be similar to this day.
  • Another complaint of Norris against bicameralism was that it tended to “diminish electoral responsiveness”, claiming that two legislative chambers so complicated the electoral process that voters became confused and were apt to vote in unpredictable and contrary ways. It is difficult to give credence to this criticism since voters seemed to be able to keep track of several Representatives, two Senators, a President and a multitude of state and local level officials, all of whom hold positions of influence over policies that affect their lives and welfare. Exactly how having an extra state Senator or two is so burdensome to voters is never really addressed the Norris.

Notably, Norris completely failed to take note of perhaps the most serious defect of unicameralism in state legislatures – that of its injurious nature with regard to the separation of powers doctrine. When legislative review is lessened (which is certainly the case in a unicameral body) then the separation of powers doctrine demands that a more rigorous judicial review is called for, as well as an enhanced ability for review/oversight of intended legislation by the people, the so-called “second body” here in Nebraska. No significant enlargement of either of these faculties is obvious following the adoption of the unicameral approach.

It is worthy of mention that Norris’s campaign for unicameralism is also directly and blatantly contrary to the ideas espoused and promoted by James Madison (a pretty fair political theorist) in Federalist 10 and 51. In #10, Madison explicates the benefits of having a larger, rather than a smaller, legislative body; he says “… as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried ….” He then presses the case for a divided legislative branch in #51, stating “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.”

And finally, we must ask ourselves if any detectable advantage accrues from utilizing the unicameral model as compared with the bicameral. An appropriate measure of such comparison is the degree to which each produces “constitutionally reasonable” law, i.e., which system is most likely to produce legislation which is able to withstand judicial review. Dr. Rogers has developed positive theoretic models comparing legislative processes, and has provided convincing evidence that the “ends and means of legislation are more constitutionally suspect when a product of a unicameral legislature than when they are a product of a bicameral legislature.” I will not give a detailed account here of Rogers’ modeling techniques but interested parties should investigate them at the reference cited above. I am not trained in the law, but a couple of years of graduate study in sciences have provided me with a working knowledge of acceptable statistical modeling techniques – and Rogers’ work is, for me, quite solid.

In summary, it seems clear, at least to this observer, that Norris sold the State of Nebraska at the very best a pig in a poke, and, at worst, a dangerously defective idea. In my next post, I will take up the other half of Norris’s folly, that is, his devotion to “nonpartisanship” and show how it has damaged our politics, and thus, our public policy, as well as offer some suggestions toward improving the legislative process here in Nebraska.

Be well.

Posted in George Norris, Political, Unicameral | 1 Comment

The game’s afoot …

 dogscards

I spent a couple of hours recently at a confab billed as “Unicameral Prowess 101”, the ostensible purpose of which was to learn how to contact and influence state senators. The affair was sponsored by a distinctly right-leaning group out of Omaha called “Nebraskans for Founders’ Values”, and featured District 49 Senator John Murante as the main speaker/teacher. The ringmaster was a chap named Mark Bonkiewicz, one of NFFV’s founders, and clearly a graduate of several Carnegie courses.

It cost me ten bucks and I got a slick publication entitled “Inside Our Nation’s Only Unicameral”, a pocket-sized booklet containing a staff directory and map of the State Capitol, a printed agenda (which no one paid much attention to), and a couple of single sheet hand-outs with senators’ phone numbers and email addys. Oh, and a really tasty lemon poppyseed muffin and a styrofoam cupful of what might have been iced tea, or possibly flat ginger ale.

I didn’t glean much new information on effecting change in senatorial/legislative behavior, but I was fascinated by Senator Murante’s surprisingly forthright descriptions of how the legislative sausage actually gets made. Elected in 2012 and current chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, Murante possesses a wealth of first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Unicameral, and seemed willing to speak candidly on the subject.

Perhaps I am/was naive but I was surprised to learn, for example, that a significant part of the daily workings of the denizens of the Norris chamber is grounded, not, as one might expect, in actual written rules and protocols, but in loosely defined (but rigorously adhered to) fuzzy notions of “traditional” practice. For example, age/seniority plays a powerful role in the doling out of key committee memberships and other plum assignments, with the candidate’s abilities or background being of distinctly secondary importance, even though official (i.e., written) protocols requiring or allowing such cavalier procedures do not exist.

Further, there doesn’t seem to be any formalized method for new senators to make clear their wishes with regard to committee assignments. Apparently, if Senator-elect Gizwhizzy would like to be on, say, the Sewer Committee, it is strictly up to him to contact virtually everyone with any official capacity in the Legislature and let them know his druthers. Then he sits back and waits to see if anyone noticed.

Additionally, we are all way too familiar with the Unicameral’s reprehensible practice of voting for Committee chairs by secret ballot (which Murante voted against when the issue of Legislative Rules came up); Murante indicated that the reason du jour promulgated by those who insist on supporting the secret ballot process was that they (the supporters) did not want to allow party politics to “contaminate” the process of Committee Chair selection. Say what …??!!? Seems to me the whole secret ballot thing is already pretty smelly.

Last I heard, the promulgators continue with the secret ballot so no one’s “feelings” would be hurt. Seems there are as many faux reasons to continue this abominable practice as their are gutless hangers-on in the Unicam. See, I don’t care if a legislator’s sensibilities are offended , or they have no taste for partisanship … or they want to play slap-and-tickle in the cloak room. I care about what my representative is for and what he or she is against. Period.

There were lots of other tidbits concerning our Unicameral that one just can’t get from the official publications. Most were intellectually nourishing and/or mildly entertaining, and I thank Senator Murante for spending time informing us.

If you get an opportunity to attend another iteration of this particular dog-and-pony show, I recommend it.

Be well.

Posted in Political, Unicameral | Leave a comment

Generations Pass Away But Earth Abides Forever (Ecclesiastes 1:4)

Earth_Abides

Back in 1949 a science fiction author named George Stewart wrote a novel called “Earth Abides”, in which some global horror or another (I forget exactly what it was – been a long time ago) pretty much wiped out humanity on the Third Rock. Twas, as I recall, a fairly unremarkable post-apocalyptic tale in which a tiny band of humans attempt to survive and repopulate the planet. But what stuck with me (in fact the only reason I remember this book) was one of the sub-subplots wherein an interloper, unimaginatively enough named ‘Charlie’, crashed the group and created all kinds of havoc. Seems Charlie was a real bastard in just about every way, but the critical menace to their survival that he represented was the venereal disease which he carried … and attempted to share (unsuccessfully apparently) with an attractive but simple-minded young female member of the group. The group, sensing an existential threat, convened a “court” and decreed that Charlie be summarily put to death, which sentence was promptly carried out. And the human species survived even if they didn’t thrive.

Easy enough with the artificial perspective provided by the fictional nature of the situation to grunt and say “Yup – that was the proper course of action; after all, they had a very few women capable of child-bearing, and the loss or compromise of even one would constitute a significant hazard to, even potential extinction of, the human race.” Given the constraints of the story, even the most fanatical pro-life apologist could find any number of reasons to countenance the snuffing of Charlie.

Sadly, real life choices are rarely so straightforward.

I have refrained from weighing in the death penalty fracas currently afoot in our fair state for the very good reason that I don’t much care whether the DP is repealed or not. It seems abundantly clear to anyone not thoroughly blinded by their respective ideologies that the chances of sending anyone off to meet his/her maker in this state are somewhere between vanishingly small and utterly nonexistent. Folks – it’s been nearly two decades since we’ve blown out anyone’s candle in Huskerland. I mean we’ve Green Mile’d only three since the Ford administration for cryin’ out loud. Yeah, yeah – I know … it’s because of all the confusion about the availability of appropriate drugs, equipment, methodologies, etc., etc., yadda-yadda. Fact is, physician-assisted suicide had been going on for most of that time in a number of other states; couldn’t we just have called in some of those cats to legally Kevork the bad guys? No – we haven’t been executing people for years because there exists little public or private stomach for it – and it’s long past time somebody said it out loud. If and when I see compelling evidence that they’re unlimbering Old Sparky again, my level of interest will certainly increase, but until then ….

Though it is of little importance in the larger scheme of things, I admit to being generally opposed to governments killing its citizens – for whatever reason. Let me hasten to add that I also strongly disapprove of citizens killing citizens – for whatever reason. But, again, I see no real possibility that Nebraska (and many other states) will revert to capital punishment – even if codified/legalized/certified statutorily. But hey – politicians and ideologues of all stripes and sorts gotta have something to feed their addiction to attempting to direct the lives and fortunes of everyone else – so this year I guess it’s the death penalty’s night in the barrel. But never forget that capital punishment, perhaps more than any other single subject except possibly abortion, has become an enormously emotionally charged issue, and is central to people’s ideological self-image, usually devoid of any rational or objective support – on either side.

I have thought and read extensively about this subject, from pre-Christian philosophers, through the great Church Doctors, to what modern bioethicists and social scientists have to say and I have formulated a set of five reasons that convince me that capital punishment should be outlawed, which I give below. I ask no one to embrace these tenets – they are presented purely as explanation of why I think as I do on this particular subject.

Death Penalty as a Crime Deterrent (Uhh … Not Really)  – I have spent hours sifting through records, reports, etc. both on-line and in college libraries, and have been unable to find any statistics that I am satisfied constitute a truly objective study on this subject. Lots of claims, invariably from people and/or organizations with obvious ideological axes to grind, both pro and con. The best I have been able to find was a statement from a Supreme Court justice stating “there is no convincing empirical evidence either supporting or refuting the claim that the death penalty is a unique deterrent.” And, though I am not in the habit of quoting Janet Reno, consider this utterance from none other than …  “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.” Nuff said.

Death Penalty as Retributive Justice – Here we need to wander back into ancient Greece and listen to what Socrates had to say about good and evil. Socrates claimed that a man harms himself more in the doing of evil than in the suffering of it – making physical retribution redundant and excessive. Note that this implies that the only thing that could harm the good man would be his own wrongdoing, making Socrates one of the first to construct a philosophy on the distinction between physical (or pre-moral) evil and moral evil. Fast forward a few hundred years; in precisely the same vein, Jesus taught men not to fear those who harm the body but cannot sully the soul. To summarize, then, let me quote Theresa Murray, Christian ethicist and author:

“According to the moral philosophy of Jesus and Socrates, good and evil are inner dispositions and can neither be bestowed upon us, nor taken away from us, by the actions of others. But we can do ourselves moral harm through our own actions. By executing criminals out of a desire for revenge or retribution, we diminish ourselves and coarsen and brutalise public life.”

So, at least for moral beings, retributive justice would seem to constitute a remedy more harmful than helpful.

Biased Jury Selection Rules in Capital Cases – Under America’s jury selection rules the prosecution in a capital case dismiss potential jurors if they oppose the death penalty. Note that it takes a unanimous verdict to impose the death penalty, which means of course that jurors must be in favor of it. Here is where things start to go south. The US legal system depends on jurors understanding clearly the distinction between bad things just happening and bad things happening because somebody intended them. In other words they must grasp the meaning of “pre-moral” evil and moral evil. Yet because of jury selection rules, we know that the jury must be composed solely of death penalty supporters, and likely to have little knowledge of or appreciation for that vital distinction. Hence such jurors are in the very worst position to be able to judge the defendant on the only grounds that matter to his guilt or innocence. That seems to me to render Lady Justice anything but blind.

Mistakes (Lots of Them) Do Happen – Different sources give slightly different numbers but the evidence is overwhelming that since the federal government removed the DP moratorium in 1976, approximately 160 people who were on death row (i.e., convicted and sentenced to death) have been found to be in fact innocent of the charges for which they were convicted. This is due in large part to DNA technologies coming on line, but also because of more effective investigative techniques that have been developed. During that same period, just over 1400 people have been put to death nationwide, and about 3000 remain on death row. I will not attempt any extrapolation from the data, but it should be clear to anyone that it is virtually certain that at least some innocent people are included in those two groups.

Philosophical Coherence – And finally, it is a mystery to me how anyone who is, as I am, unapologetically pro-life (by which I mean ANTI-ABORTION) can justify capital punishment. Pro-life means “I support human life”, in all its sundry and sometimes unpleasant manifestations; we don’t get to pick and choose, like we’re at some celestial bazaar. Human life is a gift from God (or from a provident Gaian entity – for those who are troubled by overtly religious references) and, in any moral or ethical system worthy of the name, can only be taken by that same Giver. We can secure that gift, or enhance it, or degrade it … but I do not believe we can take it and remain moral human beings.

The question ultimately arises of what to do with capital criminals if we can’t squash ‘em like bugs? Simple – lock ‘em up and throw away the key. “But wait” you scream – “that’s too expensive – furnishing board and room for these louts for years and years.” True – it costs a bit, but not nearly as much as an execution, with its dozens of appeals dragging on for decades, astronomical legal fees, etc. The preponderance of evidence demonstrating this is (for once) breath-taking, and nearly unanimous. Look it up if you don’t believe me. As just one example, Death Penalty Info.org provides the following information:

  • Defense costs for death penalty trials in Kansas averaged about $400,000 per case, compared to $100,000 per case when the death penalty was not sought. (Kansas Judicial Council, 2014).
  • A new study in California revealed that the cost of the death penalty in the state has been over $4 billion since 1978. Study considered pretrial and trial costs, costs of automatic appeals and state habeas corpus petitions, costs of federal habeas corpus appeals, and costs of incarceration on death row. (Alarcon & Mitchell, 2011).
  • In Maryland, an average death penalty case resulting in a death sentence costs approximately $3 million. The eventual costs to Maryland taxpayers for cases pursued 1978-1999 will be $186 million. Five executions have resulted. (Urban Institute, 2008).
  • Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida had carried out since 1976, that amounts to a cost of $24 million for each execution.(Palm Beach Post, January 4, 2000).
  • The most comprehensive study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. The majority of those costs occur at the trial level. (Duke University, May 1993).
  • In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992).

 

Be Well.

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The Unicameral’s Magical Mystery Tour

MMTour

In April of 2013, Senator Ernie Chambers and, later, Senator Paul Schumacher introduced Legislative Resolution 155 into the Unicameral. It’s stated intent, buried among a whole mess of “Whereas’s” and “Therefore’s” was  to create a special committee to conduct a study “to review and evaluate the state’s tax laws regarding, but not limited to, sales and use taxes, income taxes, property taxes, and other miscellaneous taxes and credits and incentives.” Said committee was to accomplish this daunting task through, among other venues, a series of public hearings to be held throughout the state, since, don’t you see, “community discourse and involvement are essential to the success of a study.”

The other 47 denizens of the George W. Norris Chamber agreed that this was just a cracking good idea and it came to pass that a committee of the Unicameral was duly established, made up of a Chairman (Kearney’s own high-stepper, one Galen Hadley), the chairs of several of the legislature’s standing committees (who apparently didn’t have enough to do with their own committees), and a couple of Democrat freshmen who happened to be standing around that day looking bored.  Having seen that their creation was good, they christened it the “Tax Modernization Committee”, and bade the members to go forth and do some stuff. Or something

Whereupon, Galen the Hadley escorted his band of plucky pickwickians to hearings at five locations, three in the wilds of the Out-State (Scotts Bluff, North Platte, Norfolk) and two not so much (Lincoln and Omaha),  plus a couple or three “executive” sessions – “executive” being Unicam-speak for “secret”, meaning the rest of us don’t get to know what really went on. Politicians are big on “executive” sessions – but that’s another subject, for another post.

There are transcripts available of each of the public hearings and, though I am not proud of it, I read through them all (I have noted before that I have no life), and was struck by two common themes. First, at the outset of each hearing Senator Hadley was at great pains to point out that their purpose was not to raise taxes (Yaayy!!), nor to lower them (Wait … what!??); no, it seems that the sole mission of the Merry Bean-Counters was to discover whether or not the tax system in our state is “fair and equitable.” A quick perusal of Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law,” wherein he proclaims virtually all taxes  constitute “legalized plunder,” might have saved them from traipsing all over the state, but hey – that’s what politicians do.

The second motif, apparent as soon as the public began to be heard at each location was that everybody, with almost no exceptions, was more than a little exercised about what they saw as a tax system that cost too much, provided too little in the way of services and benefits, and was riddled with inequities, favoritism, cronyism and towering disdain for the taxpayer. The “testifiers” were polite, but they were stern … and they were essentially unanimous in their conviction that the state tax system is/was a mess of herculean proportion.

To their credit, the senators sat stolidly through the entire gauntlet, occasionally asking a question, or offering meek rejoinders, more often smiling sweetly while looking at their watches. At length, it was over, and the brave warriors, like Monty Python’s bedraggled knights, clip-clopped back to their eastern lair, there to lick their wounds, raise a glass to a skirmish well ended and sob quietly into their pillows.

So I wondered, what, if anything came of this gallant demonstration? And the answer seems to be … not much. I have below, to the best of my ability, tried to summarize the legislation, i.e., public policy initiatives, that resulted from the group’s grand tour. I spent considerable time poring over legislative documentation of all sorts and I am reasonably confident that the data below are accurate. If anyone can demonstrate anything that I missed or misinterpreted, I would appreciate your letting me know.

The TMC made several recommendations in their final report and in the interest of brevity and clarity I will not reproduce those recommendations here but you can (and should) view them yourself (pp. 86 – 87 of the committee’s report, located here). Following is a list of bills passed as result of the TMC’s suggestions.

LB 96 – Exempt Repair or Replacement Parts for Agricultural Machinery and Equipment from Sales and Use Tax. If you’re in the Ag biz, this has to be good news right? Well, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it’s pretty small beer. The Unicameral ‘fiscal note’ (which attempts to quantify the fiscal impact of a bill) says that this will cut state revenues by $7,033,000, which comes to about 0.03% of the total state expenditures (around $20.6 billion). Really?  Point oh three per cent? Really? Put another way, there are about 46,800 farms and ranches in Nebraska, so that comes to a few cents over 150 bucks per farm or ranch. Oh good … now Old McDonald can get that operation ….

LB 191 – Adopts the Nebraska Job Creation and Main Street Revitalization Act, Provide Tax Credits, and Change Certain Valuation Provisions as Prescribed. Basically what this bill does is provide some low-level incentives for redevelopment and preservation of historical property. It is difficult to discern how the TMC’s hearings relate to this bill; there were one or two testifiers who thought that the Unicam should do something to help promote tourism in Nebraska, so perhaps that’s the connection. The “fiscal impact” was stated as a reduction in state revenues of $395,929, or … wait for it … 0.0019% of the state’s total outlay for 2014.

LB 474 – Changes Provisions Relating to Occupation Taxes.  This bill redefines the term occupation tax and the powers of cities to impose such a tax. Provisions of law affecting all classes of cities are amended; also modifies the occupation tax statutes which give powers to natural resource districts to impose an occupation tax. The fiscal impact, according to the auditors, is exactly zero … so basically this bill just moves a few deck-chairs around on the USS Taxandspend.

LB 814 – Redefines Sales Price, Change Sales and Use Tax Provisions Relating to ATVs and UTVs, and Change Duties of Sellers In the Distribution of Sales Tax Revenue to Provide Funding to the Game and Parks Commission. The main thrust of this bill seems to be to find a way to capture sales tax revenue on boats and ATVs that those rascally sportsmen are buying out-of-state. So, instead of asking why such items are being bought in border states, our guys develop arcane mechanisms to make such purchases subject to their rapacious sales tax policies. Fiscal impact here is a little unclear, but it seems that around $3.5 million will come out of the general fund and go into the Game and Parks Commission Capital Fund, with a net of … umm … zero. So, another round of musical sales tax chairs. Yawn.

LB 851 – Changes Revenue and Taxation Provisions on Nonresident Owners under the Motor Vehicle Registration Act. This is a sort of a catch-all bill that makes a slew of technical changes to the 1967 Revenue Act (none of which, you won’t be surprised to learn, do much toward reducing taxes). Fiscal impact is a plus for FY2014-15 revenues of $45,723. Yeehaw … now we’re cookin’. Forty five grand – that’s just walkin’ around money to a Unicameralite.

LB 867 – Change Distribution of Certain Tax Payments to Municipalities, Create Exemptions from Sales and Use Tax, and Change Provisions Relating to Review of Tax Information by Municipalities. This bill represents a change in an existing law. Seems before this bill only municipal government employees were legally allowed to review sales tax information for businesses within the municipality. LB 867 allows an individual other than a municipal employee review such information if they are contractors to provide accounting or administrative services. It also makes provision for sales tax exemptions on such things as natural gas used as vehicular fuel, sales of gold bullion, purchases of antique automobiles by museums, and certain postage charges. Fiscal impact for FY2014-15 is estimated at -$3500.

LB 986 – Changes Homestead Exemption Income Limitations. This bill increases the income limitation and evens out the declining scale of property tax relief under the homestead exemption . It also allows for a homestead exemption for persons with a developmental disability. Fiscal impact for FY2014-15 is estimated as a $4,621,000 increase in expenditures from the General Fund.

LB 987 – Adjusts Individual Income Tax Brackets for Inflation and Exempt Social Security Benefits from Income Taxation. Addresses “bracket creep” (apparent increase in income due to inflation), and makes Social Security recipients whose federal adjusted gross income is $58,000 or less (joint) or $43,000 or less (non-joint) exempt from taxation of their SS benefits. Also addresses taxation of military pensions. Fiscal impact is a loss in revenues in FY2014-15 of $8,347,000, or about 0.04% of total state expenditures.

LB 1067 – Change Sales and Use Tax Refund Provisions, Extend Sunset Dates Under Certain Tax Incentive Laws, and Change Provisions of the Angel Investment Tax Credit Act. Mainly this bill extends the tax credits available under several obscure and little-used tax credit laws for two years. Estimated reduction to General Fund for FY2014-15 is $1,040,000, or 0.005% of total state expenditures.

LB 1087 – Creates a Homestead Exemption for Disabled Veterans, Widows, and Widowers. This bill does exactly what the description states … and is long overdue. Fiscal impact is $0 in FY2014-15, and $406,000 for FY2015-16 (it doesn’t become effective until 1/1/15).

To summarize, 10 new laws, seven of which have any fiscal effect, resulting in net state revenues being reduced by $21,387,706, or, 0.104% of the state’s total expenditures for 2014. So was it all worth it? Hard to say … every little bit helps, they say, but a tenth of one per cent seems like such a little little bit ….

There were a number of  bills that were engendered by the TMC’s hearings but which were NOT enacted by the 103rd legislature. A group of these are noteworthy in that they would have brought substantive property tax relief to agricultural land owners had they been enacted  (See LB 101, LB 145, LB 618, LB 670, LB 813, and LB 1038) – but alas, it was not to be –  they all died at the end of the session. You can peruse these “might-have-beens” beginning on page 96 of the Tax Modernization Committee’s Report located here.

Be well.

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