Thursday, June 30, 2011

Risking Taxpayer Money

COLUMN NOTES: I changed my mind again. I am going to keep posting the full column here because I want a secondary online depository. I'm also going to try and link to articles and other sources of information I use to write the columns.

HARBESON: Windstream in it for the money

CLARKSVILLE — There’s no doubt Windstream Technologies has developed quite an interesting product. I was initially impressed by the publicity surrounding its wind turbine and when I looked deeper, I saw even greater potential.

First of all, any product that can help people get off the grid is a plus, so a turbine capable of supplying even partial energy needs using wind speeds as low as 4 to 5 mph certainly seems promising.

It’s fairly small and unobtrusive and I even like the design, too. As a matter of fact, I could see one of these babies looking very smart as a coffee or end table in a room decorated in a modern-style design. (Hmm, I wonder if such an installation might actually be operational inside government buildings where politicians are busy blustering.)

In addition, Windstream gained extra publicity when it installed its first turbine as part of the League of Green Embassies program and the company apparently even has a significant amount of preorders waiting.

So with all this going for the company, why does Windstream need to ask taxpayers to take on their risk? Where are the private investors?

If a company can’t convince traditional bankers to assume the risk, there are other ways to raise funds or move a product forward. What has it tried in order to gain access to the nonbank private investment dollar? For that matter, why aren’t the owners trying to sell the idea to an existing company who has the capital and/or infrastructure to build this product?

There are many alternatives and possibilities in the private market.

Do companies like Windstream get tied so strongly into government as the solution because they are in a business which is highly regulated and controlled? Windstream CEO Dan Bates seems to be all for using government to benefit his company because he’s promoted government caps on carbon emissions to force the market to move in ways that benefit his business. Is this really the best means to grow a business?

Maybe New Albany is better off not having companies which constantly look to government goodies. Windstream only came here because Indiana state government bribed them with deals using taxpayer money in the first place. Companies who arrive on such terms are certainly more likely to think they deserve more and more in order to stay.

Windstream ended up in North Vernon, accepting a government-backed loan for less money than they requested from New Albany. This may be partially due to North Vernon’s site being the old Regal Rug factory. A location that was previously used for assembly-type work likely requires less setup costs than New Albany’s retail site. Yet, Windstream still didn’t do it without using local politicians to force taxpayers to take on the company’s risk by providing banking services.

People who promote these special government favors like to label such actions as being “business-friendly.” But for “business-friendly” to be a meaningful term, it must be applied universally, not by handing out special financing deals to certain companies.

A friendly business environment is one that gets out of the way of hard-working, ambitious people so they can develop and grow their product or service without being constantly propped up by government assistance.

Less regulation and less taxation create an environment where self-sustaining businesses are free to invest as they see fit, and no one forces those who don’t gain favor of politicians to subsidize those who do.

It appears that dealing with companies who only come to town because they were bribed means cities will have to deal with demands for even more handouts. Which is kind of like finding out someone only married you for your money.

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson wonders if anyone has ever measured the mph that hot air moves inside government buildings filled with politicians.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is There Such a Thing as "Best Interest of Taxpayers?"

COLUMN NOTES: I think I'm going to start pasting only part of my columns here from now on and then link back to the paper for the rest. No one told me to do this, I just thought it would be good to have readers go to the site where it was originally published. Then you can see comments others made in response and can also make comments of your own if you want. All reader reactions are in the same place, which is a good thing. I guess.

Or maybe I've just gotten really, really lazy. Maybe I can't even cut and paste a whole column anymore, I only have enough energy to pull my mouse over a piece of a column. Yeah, that's probably really it.

HARBESON: What’s in your best interest?

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — I find it fascinating that the New Albany-Floyd County government school system is working hard to find a way to avoid complying with the new state law that helps charter schools make use of empty school buildings.

Who would have thought that an entity in charge of teaching kids would be so against the basic idea of sharing with others?

Read the rest here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

ISTEP Security Breach

HARBESON: Let me pose a question
SELLERSBURG — When standardized testing is used to evaluate schools, one of the major priorities is preventing the specific questions from becoming public before the test is administered.

In the past, when such a “security breach” occurred, the “breachers” hoped to increase scores. But this year, a test item went public for a very different reason.

This particular question was part of the eighth grade writing portion of the ISTEP+, Indiana’s version of government standardized testing. It was made public because those involved in spreading the question around were upset and thought the question promoted the current administration’s education voucher agenda.

In other words, these teachers were worried that people were using the government education system to indoctrinate the children toward a specific viewpoint.

On the other side, we have the administration’s response, which may be even more interesting. Heather Neal, chief of staff for Indiana’s Department of Education, issued a memo to the schools explaining this ISTEP+ security breach and defending those in charge of government education against this accusation of political manipulation.

In this three-page memo, which you can read for yourself here, Neal includes a table listing 16 steps the test item went through. After its birth at a private test vendor, the test item was then passed around to various groups who punched, poked and prodded the poor thing for two years. She says there is no possible way the question could have been placed in the test to promote a 2011 legislative agenda item.

In other words, the current cost-cutting, efficiency-focused administration used their costly government bureaucracy as a defense against the accusation.

By now you’re probably wondering what that test question said. Well here it is:

“Your school has just announced a program that will allow a group of eighth-graders from your class to attend high school anywhere in the United States. You will have all of your expenses paid for by a special scholarship program.

“Write a persuasive essay to your school’s selection committee explaining why you should be chosen and where you would like to go to high school. In your persuasive essay, tell about the personal qualities you have that would make you a good choice. Explain why you want to go to high school in the town or city you have chosen.”

It is, of course, a matter of personal opinion and interpretation as to whether you think this question could be promoting government vouchers. The question does not explain whether private high schools are included in the program nor does it clarify where the funds for the “special scholarship program” are coming from.

And why should it? Government schools never talk to students about their funding model. This is never part of the curriculum because it would naturally lead to all sorts of uncomfortable questions from the kids as they tried to reconcile this with the lessons teaching that bullying and threatening violence against others to get what you want is wrong.

It’s interesting to see how the content of a single test question mattered so much to both groups. Why were these teachers so upset that this question may be supporting vouchers and why was the current administration so determined to say they had nothing to do with the question, even specifically pointing out that the state superintendent of public instruction had nothing to do with the development of the question?

Could it be that both groups clearly understand that standardized testing is a powerful tool used to control the curriculum and as a result, the very thinking of the students who are forced to comply?

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson thinks a mind is a terrible thing to standardize.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Politicians Behaving Normally?

HARBESON: There’s always a way to get more money

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Clark County Commissioners learned an important lesson this week: The quickest way to boost attendance at their meetings is to mention a possible benefit reduction for government employees.

Naturally, the employees were concerned and wanted to object. It’s only rational to try to keep what you believe you’ve earned.

We can all sympathize with the frustration of feeling dependent on the actions of politicians, particularly when watching how they behave under pressure.

According to local media reports, during the meeting Commissioner Les Young told a member of the crowd to “shut up,” Commissioner Meyer accused Commissioner Moore of taking stances for political reasons, and previously Moore said the other two were using the employees as political pawns.

Those last two comments belong in the obvious category. After all, princes play polo, possums play dead and politicians play politics.

We’ve seen other instances of questionable behavior, the most notable being the cell phone incident when Moore spit out a string of expletives in a voicemail message to Meyer, who saved it and passed it through his gossip mill.

Even though Young apologized and Moore expressed remorse for that expletive-laced message, clearly none of these men are behaving in ways we’d want our children to emulate.

I’m not sure the rest of us would do much better though. We must keep in mind that the purpose of their government job is to decide how to spend other people’s money that was taken through coercive means. There’s no better recipe for cooking up conflict and it always boils over when governments run low on money.

In this specific instance, the potential spending cut was employee health insurance benefits. Is this the right place to cut? Would another budget item be better?

There is no right answer. It’s simply a matter of opinion based on each individual’s perspective of perceived personal benefit. Any solution is going to taste rotten to someone.

The only easy question to answer is that no matter what government spends money on, the taxpayer ultimately funds it. Even if the insurance benefit is taken away and government employees pay “out of their own pockets,” it’s still taxpayer money when it comes from a government employee’s earnings.

The commissioners’ current argument focuses on the various boxes the government creates to store the coerced funds. Moore wanted to eat into the cumulative capital fund, but according to Indiana Code, I don’t see how employee insurance benefits fit the definition of a county emergency.

If correct, then the expenditure would likely end up in a future SBOA report. Oh heck, that wouldn’t really matter since there is always a lawyer available to make excuses for negative SBOA reports.

The commissioners did reduce government spending at this meeting by eliminating insurance for part-time elected officials. Interestingly, Moore, the lone Republican, voted against this cost-cutting measure. But he receives this government goodie so his action makes sense when you apply the perceived benefit truism I explained earlier.

No matter how this gets resolved, if some part of the county government decides it wants more money, there is always a way to get it, property tax caps or not. Just look at the lawsuits pushing mandates to force loans which would be paid for by the taxpayer.

I remember when Sheriff Danny Rodden was on the Clark County Council pushing for an income tax, which eventually passed. He had statistics and presentations proving how great life will be once the government gained access to that revenue source.

But obviously, government spending problems do not go away no matter what politicians say. It’s simply impossible to supply enough funds to satisfy the hunger of a monopolistic entity that claims the moral right to take your money by force.

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson says many recipes exist to lower the conflict count among humans. Individual ingredients vary but the base is always voluntary interaction.