Monday, April 30, 2007

Candidate Review Wednesday: Overview

This time 4 years ago, I was firmly committed to Florida's favorite son, my former boss, Senator and former Florida Governor Bob Graham. I had taken a look at Howard Dean and liked what I saw. I was not enamored of John Kerry (more on that later) and I thought John Edwards suffered from premature ejaculation (er, uh, candidacy).

This cycle, I am much more conflicted. There is not one candidate who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, in my opinion. Maybe the best candidate isn't even in the race. Maybe the best candidate is ineligible to run again. There are at least two candidates who I would be equally happy to have as my party's nominee. This is the embarrassment of riches we seem to be suffering this year.

Today, I am launching a series of diaries to try and get the fencepost out of my ass. This series is going to be a little bit like examining my navel, something I have successfully avoided doing to this point in my life for the most part. I hope at the end of the day to have developed a coherent reason to support one candidate over all the others.

There are a couple of caveats I should make here. I am going to support the Democratic nominee. Period.

I want to become a paid employee of, or consultant to, the campaign I end up choosing to support. I could repeat my pattern from the last presidential cycle and spend my energy on the Congressional level. That happened after my first choice, Bob Graham, decided he couldn't sustain a viable campaign. This cycle though, I hope I wind up catching on with the ultimate nominee.

There are two top level criteria I am going to use to evaluate the candidates. The first is their ability to win the nomination. The second is their ability to win the general election. You can't have one without the other. That's what happened to Howard Dean in Iowa last cycle. Iowans came to the conclusion that Dean could not win the general. They also came to the mistaken conclusion that John Kerry could, so what do they know?

In my attempts to evaluate candidates chances to win the nomination, I am going to look at these factors:
  • Values projected in the Message
  • Stance on issues
  • Fundraising ability
  • Staff competence
  • Primary strategy
  • Does this candidate make me feel it?

I am going to go back to square one and do my own research on all these factors. I am a devotee of values based decision making, so I am going to start with that navel gazing thing. I am going to have to come up with a set of criteria to evaluate how each candidate's message resonates with my values (That's the first and the last criteria on the list above.) Those criteria are, by their nature, subjective. The other criteria are more objective in nature. At the end of the day, it is going to come down to my gut feeling as to which candidate makes me feel it more.

That's how I intend to proceed. It should be an interesting journey.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Value of Art Education

This may be a particularly apropos time for a diary on this topic. This very week The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined forces with The Broad Foundation and announced a $60 million political style campaign for Strong American Schools called Ed in 08.

In Florida, my home state, the combination of rising property insurance premiums and property tax increases is driving the state legislature towards draconian changes in the tax system. The major target is property taxes which are the only source of revenue for local school funding requirements and the major source of revenue for local governments. The state legislature's well intended efforts to provide much needed relief to property owners are about to have some very severe unintended consequences for the quality of life here in Florida.

Caught squarely in the headlights of those unintended consequences are the arts and art education. The arts are always high on the list of the first place to cut funding in times like these. Follow me below the fold to examine why this is precisely the wrong place to start cutting.

My good friend Alonewolf , has heard more than enough about workforce training. As the CEO of an innovative high tech company, he worries about creating the next generation of leaders and creative thinkers. "Workforce Training" makes him think of the 1984 Apple Super Bowl commercial with the suited automatons marching over the cliff. At a recent "Regional Leadership Breakfast" in St. Petersburg, the topic was "Education in Florida". There were several comments and questions about "workforce training." But at this "leadership" breakfast, no one seemed to much care about leadership training.

New Horizons for Learning provides a terrific resource for the value of arts in education. Their prologue states in part:

Today it is recognized that to be truly well educated one must not only learn to appreciate the arts, but must have rich opportunities to actively participate in creative work. The arts are languages that most people speak, cutting through individual differences in culture, educational background, and ability. They can bring every subject to life and turn abstractions into concrete reality. Learning through the arts often results in greater academic achievement and higher test scores.

In Why are the Arts Important?, Dee Dickinson provides a 15 point checklist. Here are my favorites from that list:

They improve academic achievement -- enhancing test scores, attitudes, social skills, critical and creative thinking.

They exercise and develop higher order thinking skills including analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and "problem-finding."

They provide the means for every student to learn.

To my way of thinking, that should be enough to end this diary right here. But not every decision maker is influenced solely by these factors. So here is something decision makers do understand - $$$$$$.

The Economic Impact of Florida’s Arts and Cultural Industry released by the Florida Cultural Alliance in January 2004 is a study by Dr. William Stronge of Florida Atlantic University. The study is based on fiscal year 2001. Some highlights are:

Florida’s arts and cultural industry is one of the fastest growing in the state. Its annual statewide economic impact has grown from $1.7 billion in 1997 to over $2.9 billion and now supports over 28,000 full-time equivalent jobs. (That is $104 thousand per full time equivalent job!)

Attendees at the programs and events of not-for-profit cultural organizations exceeded 400 million in 2000-01. Audience participation is significant because attendance at these events generates related commerce for local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and shops.

An estimated 7 million out-of-state tourists visited Florida’s cultural facilities or attended cultural events as a primary activity. These “cultural” tourists spent $4.5 billion, adding $9.3 billion to the state's gross regional product and creating 103,713 full-time equivalent jobs with a payroll of $2.6 billion.

The Florida Department of State has also published a brochure, Return on Investment: Florida's Cultural, Historical and Library Programs which highlights not only the economic impact of the arts but also the impact of our state's historic preservation and libraries.

Any fair reading of these studies leads to but one conclusion. Funding for the arts and art education is the last place that should be cut. Please join with me in letting our legislative and business leaders know that if they want to be leaders in the future and they want Strong American Schools , they need to lead with the arts.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Iraq Withdrawal - Post Veto Frame

Our Fearless Leader, Georgie W, today reiterated his plan to veto the Iraq Supplemental Appropriations bill passed by Congress this week. You know, the one with the goal of removing US troops from Iraq by the end of March 2008. What's to worry, you say. The American people are on our side on this.

Well, maybe. They are on our side, if we don't stick our foot in our mouth. Or let the other side frame the debate. Is this a slam dunk? Hardly.

Follow me and you'll get my take on how to play the next inning.

We have got to come out of the gate saying:
The President just refused the money needed to get our troops home safely from Iraq. He is now playing politics with the troops lives by refusing to take this money and refusing to plan a safe redeployment.

The numbers seem to be on our side. 71% of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq. 64% believe we should set a timetable for withdrawal. 57% believe Congress should have the final say on Iraq troop levels. Sounds pretty good, huh? Well, not so fast, Skippy. Take a look at this:

"The Democrats in Congress have proposed to fund the Iraq war only if the U.S. sets a timetable for troop withdrawal, too. George W. Bush has stated he will veto that proposal. If George W. Bush does veto it, what should the Democrats in Congress do next: should they try to withhold funding for the war until George W. Bush accepts a timetable for troop withdrawal, or should they allow funding for the war, even if there is no timetable?"

56% say Congress should allow the funding after the veto.

That is why we must drive home this point:
Bush refused the money.

Congress gave him the money he asked for, along with reasonable conditions for its use. Bush did not want to be bound by those conditions, so he refused the money. We must not allow the debate to be framed as Congress withholding the money. Congress voted for the money. George Bush refused the money. He is putting our troops lives at risk by refusing the money and refusing to plan a safe redeployment of our troops.

Just say yes, Georgie.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


OK - this has been done at least once already today. But we are trying to keep this in front of you so we can elecit all the help we can get. If you care at all about election integrity, please act today.


This originally supportable bill for paper ballots has become a dumping ground of partisan garbage. We need help contacting FL legislators today!!!

Subject: URGENT ACTION ALERT: Write all FL Senators in support of paper ballots today!!

Also, please send to every Florida voter you know as it is urgent as many Florida voters as possible write to Tallahassee today.

If you're outside of Florida, contact Governor Crist directly here .

Tell the Governor:

Congrats to you, Governor Crist, on your PAPER BALLOT plan to reform Florida’s voting systems. Floridians are fed up being a national laughingstock and the rest of the country is cheering Florida on to get this right. Now is the time for the LEGISLATURE to pass a CLEAN BILL in support of your plan – free from political baggage – and IMPLEMENT meaningful PAPER BALLOT voting system reform – fully effective for the 2008 Presidential election.

For concerned Florida voters:

Please send the following e-mail TODAY, Thursday, April 26th, to all Florida Senators: Please use this text only. The key Senate bill on voting systems is scheduled to be voted on TODAY.

Also, please send to every Florida voter you know as it is urgent that as many as possible write to Tallahassee today.

Type this in your "Subject" line:

I support a clean bill for Gov. Crist's paper ballot plan

Copy and paste this into the body of the email:

I support Governor Crist’s paper ballot plan to reform Florida ’s voting systems. Floridians are fed up being a national laughing stock. Now is the time for the legislature to pass a clean bill – free from political baggage – and implement Governor Crist’s paper ballot voting system reform – fully effective for the 2008 Presidential election.

The complete list of Senators is below. Simply highlight the list, copy and paste it into the "To:" line of your e-mail.

[NOTE: If you have trouble using the e-mail list below, it may be because of the commas separating the e-mail addresses. Some e-mail providers prefer semi-colons between names. Please don't let that stop you from getting this out... and thank for taking that extra step, if necessary.],,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Thank you!!!

Voting Integrity Alliance of Tampa Bay
Member, VoteTrustUSA Leaders Group
Co-Founder, Florida Voters Coalition

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Property Taxes and Quality of Life

There is no question whatsoever that the hottest topic in the state legislature right now is property tax "reform". What I want to know is who up there is taking a serious look at how these so called reforms are going to affect the quality of life here in Florida? What do I mean by this? Come along and we'll take a quick tour of the issues.

Nobody disputes that there are serious inequities in our current property tax system. However, nothing in the House bill actually addresses those inequities, and precious little in the Senate bill. Here are the subgroups of people who have been most seriously disadvantaged by our current property tax system:

1) Rental property owners and by extension renters.
2) Business property owners
3) Non homestead residential property owners
4) Homesteaders trapped in their homes by Save Our Homes

Rental property owners, particularly those who rent affordable units, have been brutally hit by the current property tax system. But the people they have been hit by are the property appraisers. The appraisers see that property as a potential high price condo and tax it accordingly. That's akin to an income tax that taxes you on what you might have earned rather than what you actually earned. What a brilliant idea that is.

Business property owners have the same problem. Their properties are being taxed as if they were in a new multi use property or a new office tower, as opposed to the mom and pop shop they actually run. More taxes on potential.

Non homestead residential property owners, or second home owners if you will are also getting hammered by the run up in real estate values. But legislators, here's a clue. These people are either not citizens of Florida, or they are fortunate enough to own a second home in this state. The first group are not voters here. The second group, to the extent they can afford to have a second home in this state also ought to be able to afford the taxes on it.

Finally we have the homesteaders who are trapped in their current homes by the Save Our Homes amendment and its unintended consequences. The Save Our Homes amendment is working exactly as it was meant to. People are not being taxed out of their homesteads in Florida. But they are being held hostage in their current homes due to the tax consequences of moving into a new home.

So what do the House and Senate "reform" plans do for these classes of tax payers? The house bill does virtually nothing for anyone except homestead property owners, the exact class that needs tax relief the least. I was fortunate enough to buy a property in downtown St. Petersburg 10 years ago. Thanks to Save Our Homes and Homestead Exemption, the taxable value of my home is still below my 10 year old purchase price. Meanwhile the actual market value of my home has quadrupled. Do I need tax relief? Actually my city taxes in St. Petersburg declined slightly last year. The only tax reform I need is Save Our Homes portability.

The Senate bill attempts a form of temporary portability. Their excuse is that there are constitutional issues (US Constitution) against just making Save Our Homes fully portable. The issue is that making Save Our Homes portable would unconstitutionally create different classes of taxpayers in Florida. This argument is spurious at best. We have had Homestead Exemption for as long as I can remember. We have additional homestead exemptions available for the elderly, disabled veterans, widows and probably some other groups. None of these has ever been successfully challenged on constitutional grounds. There is no real reason to suspect that Save Our Homes portability would not pass the same test.

How about rental property owners and the renters themselves? Well, if your rental property is qualified as "affordable" and you agree to maintain that use of the property for 20 years, you can get your appraised value figured on actual cash flow on the property. There is no reason that actual cash flow could not be used as a valuation method on all rental properties.

The same thing applies to other business property owners. They need to get off "highest and best use" appraisals and get onto some variation of current use valuation. Nothing substantial is being proposed for these property owners.

Now, what has all this to do with quality of life. The reforms that I am in favor of above are already going to cost local governments tax revenue. The bigger gun to the head of local governments is actually the various proposals to "roll back" local governments property tax revenue to some prior year. That is what is going to hit us all squarely in our quality of life.

My own local governments, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County have not been profligate squanderers of tax money, but they are being dumped into the same boat with other local governments that might have been. Both governments have been looking at the likely consequences of the property tax proposals in Tallahassee. Both local governments have insisted that the police and sheriff's departments would not have services curtailed due to property tax revenue reductions. So where does that leave them?

St. Petersburg has mentioned that some fire stations might be closed. That can not have a good effect on overall fire department response times.

St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are faced with a homelessness crisis, as evidenced by the tent cities that have sprung up in St. Petersburg. Residents and business owners want government to step in and fix the problem. The temporary solution is more emergency shelter beds. The longer term solution is affordable housing. Both of these "solutions" cost money. However these are precisely the spending areas that are likely to fare poorly when the budget axe falls. We will then have to deal with the current homeless situation without major relief for some time to come.

Pinellas County is starting to have second thoughts about the feasibility of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). This is the program that allows all property tax revenues from a specific area (city and county) to be reinvested in those specific areas. TIF has had spectacular results in downtown St. petersburg and in Ybor City. If county governments decide they can no longer afford TIFs, the economic effects in construction spending slowdowns will be felt for years to come.

St. Petersburg has already prepared a letter to all social service agencies and charities that have received financial support from the City. These folks have been told to plan their budgets on the basis that they would receive no funds from the City of St. Petersburg this year. These items include support for alcohol treatment centers and an inebriate receiving center.

Other quality of life areas sure to receive budget hits are the Pier Aquarium, the Florida Orchestra, the MLK Festival Band Event and various other City Co-sponsored events. Some of us are surely going to miss these things when they are gone.

There are other areas that are sure to take some hits as well. Library branches might close, or have their hours of operation sharply reduced. Parks will not have their grass cut or their other maintenance needs tended to as we would like to see them.

If our legislators rush into this so called "property tax reform" without careful consideration, we are going to be feeling the unintended consequences in our quality of life for years to come.

Who will the legislators blame then?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Charlie Crist: a Wolf in Progressive Clothing

Over at RockridgeNation there is a posting up about Florida's new and so far hugely popular Governor, Charlie Crist, entitled A John Lennon Conservative?

As a resident of Charlie Crist's hometown, I can bring an up close and personal perspective. I have known Charlie Crist for over 20 years. One need make no mistake about Charlie - he is a consummate politician. I think he is doing these "progressive" things because he does believe in them. But I'm not so sure he believes in them in and of themselves, but as in where the political advantage lies.

Florida is one of those states that really makes people shake their heads, especially progressives. Florida is about 4 states in one. There is the very progressive Southeast Florida (tempered by the reactionary ant-Castro Cubans in Miami), We have the very conservative Southwest Florida. We have the moderate I-4 corridor through the middle of the state. And we have conservative North Florida (tempered by the two big university cities, Gainesville and Tallahassee.)

Boiling all this down, Florida actually comes out as much more moderate than folks on either end of the political spectrum want to admit. Charlie Crist knows this very well. His biggest political defeat, and his springboard onto the state political stage, came when he took on the moderate and hugely popular US Senator Bob Graham.

Charlie Crist is hugely popular right now because he is trying to be all things to all people. The RockridgeNation posting did not mention Charlies' number one priority - his "anti-murder" bill. He demanded and received it as the first bill he signed from the regular legislative session. This bill requires judges to keep probation violators in jail until the judge certifies the person is not a danger to society. The cost of building the jail cells needed for this could well bankrupt the state. My guess is the Florida Legislature is not going to provide all the necessary funding for this, thus creating an onerous burden for the County jails where most of these folks are going to be housed.

Charlie Crist also knows that for every progressive action he takes, he must do something to satisfy his political base. Thus his support of the failed school accountability test program and tax cuts. Crist is playing both ends against the middle. Whether he can continue to pull it off is an open question.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Property Tax Puzzle

Property tax reform is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, issue facing the state legislature this year. There has been much hand wringing all around. Many hare brained schemes have been floated. Civic Concern has just published a thoughtful, reasoned history of the property tax problems in Florida and proposed some solutions.

Some commenters on the St. Peterburg Times Buzz Blog piece on this report claim that
The people want major reduction in property taxes
Others argue

I don't think "the people" want a bunch of half-cocked, sound bite ideas. ... Recent polls show they're pretty skeptical of all the various proposals.
Most of "the people", i.e. the voters in this state are already benefiting from the "Save Our Homes" tax cap. Homesteaders in the City of St. Petersburg saw their City taxes stay essentially flat this year in dollar terms. These are not "the people" clamoring the most for property tax reductions. The "Save Our Homes" amendment has worked exactly as it was intended. Homesteaders are not being forced out of their homes by rising property taxes. There have been some unintended consequences, some foreseen, others unforeseen.

The foreseen consequences are that other property tax payers would pay a larger share of the tax burden if homestead property taxes were "capped". That is certainly happening. Business property owners, and by extension, renters have been seeing their uncapped property valuations and their taxes going through the roof with the recent boom in real estate prices. Chief among the unforeseen consequences are homesteaders being "trapped" in their current homes because they couldn't afford the taxes on a new property if they moved and had to step up to current market valuations.

One of the most curious scenes in this whole property tax situation is how local governments are made out as the whipping boys in this "debate". I say curious because just last fall Leadership Florida did a comprehensive survey of Florida residents. Among the key findings in this survey was the relative approval ratings of the various levels of government. Fully 61% of the respondents see the state government as doing only a fair or poor job. County governments were rated fair or poor by 55% of respondents. Only 38% of city dwellers rated their city governments as fair or poor. The state government, which people like the least, is pointing the tax reform gun right at the heads of local governments, which people like the most. I'm not sure how well that is going to work out for them.

Besides, the increasing revenue requirements of local governments are not entirely of their own making. One of the biggest drivers of increasing expenditures by local governments is growth. And that is not just on a linear basis, because growth does not pay for itself. The new taxes generated are not sufficient to pay for the increased capital needs (roads, schools, sewer) or service needs (police, fire, garbage collection) caused by the growth. Neither have we collected sufficient impact fees to pay for this growth. This, in effect, has shifted the tax burden for growth onto existing tax payers and not the new ones.That is the major reason I am not at all bothered by the apparent inequities in taxes paid for newly built homes relative to existing homes covered by the "Save our Homes" amendment. To the extent that local governments could have ameliorated this situation by charging higher impact fees, it is their fault. To the extent that the state did not do a better job of regulating growth and anticipating the increased costs, it is their fault.

But the question really is not about the blame game. The question is what to do to solve the very real property tax problems that do exist. First, here is what not to do. Arbitrary roll backs of local government revenues are not the answer. Most local elected officials are much more careful with their taxpayers dollars than the folks in Tallahassee ever were. Do you really want them deciding how much your local government can spend on your police and fire departments?

We can do something to stop the bleeding for non homestead property owners. We can change the way properties are valued. Currently, non homestead properties are valued on the basis of their "highest and best use". That is to say that the corner ice cream shop will be taxed as if it were a luxury condo building site if that is what the appraisers deem the "highest and best use" for the property. Changing the valuation method to one based on the value of the current use of a developed property would keep businesses and renters from being pilloried by higher taxes due to speculation in the real estate market.

We can fix one of the unintended consequences of the "Save Our Homes" amendment. We can make the tax benefit accrued by a homestead property owner portable. If the difference between the market value and the capped value of a property is X, we could let that homestead property owner take that X amount of benefit to a new homestead with them. Some say that this might not withstand constitutional scrutiny. I believe that problem could be overcome by carefully crafting the law and developing an appropriate legislative history. All citizens would in fact be treated the same for tax purposes because they could all accrue tax benefits on an equal basis.

These two measures would solve the most egregious issues involving property taxes that we currently face. Turning back the clock and pretending that local governments could maintain the same level of services with less money is nonsensical. Having Tallahassee decide what those levels ought to be really makes no sense. Providing solutions that will work into the future is what we should be striving for.