Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A closer look at the man in the arena

*First appeared in the Dec. 31, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I’ve always loved Theodore Roosevelt. He embodied my romantic notions about life: To fight valiantly, to hunt big game, to travel the world, to become a published author, to be a frontiersman, to be President of the United States, in a single lifetime.

As we gear up for another round of political goings-on (both the 2015 statewide elections and the more imminent legislative session), I remind you of Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech which he delivered in France more than a century ago. The discourse was designed to highlight the virtues necessary for a healthy republic.

Its most famous lines come about midway through the speech, in which Roosevelt extols the virtue of the man who acts:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This is, to be sure, an important quote that deserves the repetitive uttering it enjoys; yet, this passage is far from Teddy’s only observation applicable to the current political discourse.

Roosevelt warns citizens against the false gods of oration, saying “it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand.”

I particularly like the way he phrases these next observations, biting though they are: “The phrase-maker, the phrase-monger, the ready talker, however great his power, whose speech does not make for courage, sobriety, and right understanding, is simply a noxious element in the body politic, and it speaks ill for the public if he has influence over them. To admire the gift of oratory without regard to the moral quality behind the gift is to do wrong to the republic.”

The idea of purity in politics isn’t new (nor is anything under the sun), and Teddy takes this issue head on: “Perhaps the most important thing the ordinary citizen, and, above all, the leader of ordinary citizens, has to remember in political life is that he must not be a sheer doctrinaire. The closet philosopher, the refined and cultured individual who from his library tells how men ought to be governed under ideal conditions, is of no use in actual governmental work; and the one-sided fanatic, and still more the mob-leader, and the insincere man who to achieve power promises what by no possibility can be performed, are not merely useless but noxious.”

Yet don’t mistake this for weakness, for Roosevelt believes the citizen must have high ideals, but “must be able to achieve them in practical fashion…The impracticable visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the embittered foe of the real reformer, of the man who, with stumblings and shortcomings, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things.”

In Roosevelt’s republic, “to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.”

I’m hopeful we will remember these words in the coming months when passions run high, as they so often do in the body politic. As Roosevelt said, there is little place in active life for the timid good man. Let us not be timid good men in 2015.

If the Christ child were born in 2014

*First appeared in the Dec. 27 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Would the story of the birth of Jesus be different if it happened today?

Young Mary is to marry the carpenter Joseph, but their engagement is not without its share of drama. The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary, and she becomes pregnant with the Christ child.

Whispers of Mary’s presumed indiscretions fill the streets. Her friends join in the chorus of disbelievers, explaining that even reality television stars come up with more plausible excuses for unintended pregnancies. Statisticians shrug this out-of-wedlock pregnancy as a growing trend among the poor. Women’s rights activists stage a rally to celebrate Mary’s bold choice to get pregnant outside of marriage and to remind Nazarenes that it’s her body, her choice. Mental health advocates point to Mary as a product of a failed system that overlooks a woman who has spiritual delusions. Psychologists say Mary’s denial of sexual relations is an indication of some deeper longing that began in her childhood.

Joseph is reeling. Every fiber of his being wants to leave this no-good, two-timing woman. His friends say he’s not a real man if he lets her off the hook. Joseph wants to retain his manhood, but there’s one problem: He, too, has been visited by an Angel of God to confirm Mary’s story. Joseph won’t leave Mary, he tells friends. They’re in shock and take to posting on Facebook: “Clearly Mary is guilt-tripping Joseph. What do they think this is, Knocked Up? #NotAMovie #ThisIsRealLife #ManUpJoJo.”

Enter the government. A census must be taken! We must know the couple’s age, gender, income, sexual orientation, race, marital history, place of birth, disability status, educational attainment, veteran service, value of property owned, acreage of owned land, rooms in residential home, year structure built, vehicles at primary residence, class of worker, health insurance costs, work status last year, journey to work, occupation type, and place of work. This data will enable demographic trends to be observed but, more importantly, will ensure residents are paying taxes properly – giving credence to the timeless adage, “nothing is certain but death and taxes.”

The government’s decree means lots of folks are traveling to Bethlehem. Traffic on the highway is back-to-back. The common refrain on Twitter is that the dense traffic is “worse than football season.” Mary checks her Holiday Inn app. No vacancy. Joseph tries to check in online at the Motel 8, but it’s full. As a last ditch effort, they try the Bethlehem Hilton but get laughed out the door. “There’s no room here, pal,” the doorman taunts as he eyes a very-pregnant Mary.

Mary’s water breaks. She and Joseph have little time to find shelter. They pull over at an abandoned Sonic whose only residents seem to be stray cats and a three-legged dog. The animals gather round as Mary gives birth to Baby Jesus.

Angels appear to workers gathering runaway buggies at a nearby Kroger. “Fear not,” the angels tell the terrified teenagers, “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Clad in blue collared shirts and khakis, the Kroger employees make their way to the Sonic to gaze upon the newborn savior of the world. When they arrive, they are convinced this child is the Messiah. Immediately they begin blogging, tweeting, and posting photos on Instagram to share the good news.

An employee of the Department of Human Services observes the conditions in which the child is born and takes immediate action to remove the child from a dangerous environment. This government intrusion is rendered moot after a trust fund is set up for Baby Jesus by three anonymous benefactors. Even so, the government promises to keep an eye on this baby boy who looks as if he may pose a threat to the status quo in the future.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mississippi’s fiscal prudency brought to you by the voters of 2011

*First appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Last week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) adopted a budget recommendation for the upcoming fiscal year which begins on July 1, 2015. The legislative budget recommendation (LBR) provides a starting point for lawmakers to use when contemplating budget priorities in the 2015 regular session.

As is typical this time of year, I’ve seen some left-leaning types complain about the recommendation. It shortchanges (fill in the blank with your favorite state agency); it saves too much money; it doesn’t spend enough money; etc.

If you look closely, those are the same dangerous arguments which voters handily repudiated in 2011.

Prior to the last statewide election cycle in which Republicans won majorities in the House of Representatives, Senate, and Governor’s Office, the budget writing committee included mostly Democrats. As a result, the budget recommendation reflected irresponsible fiscal practices, such as including one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.

The problem (well, one of…) with this approach is that it automatically creates a funding shortfall the next year, which in turn creates one the next year, and so on. Imagine a cascading funding gap. That’s not a phrase associated with sound budgeting principles.

With Republicans in charge, that’s no longer the case. The JLBC, led by Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Governor Tate Reeves along with appropriations chairmen Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. Herb Frierson, has put a stop to spending non-recurring revenue on recurring expenses. To you, the taxpayer, this sounds very logical, even common sensical. But it took years of Republicans fighting the status quo to achieve fiscal prudency – and it was ultimately only made possible by the majority of Mississippians who voted for financial conservatism in 2011.

Today, the state’s rainy day fund is filled to its statutory amount, which means Mississippi is on solid footing should we be forced to endure another economic downturn. Saving for the future is important because it lessens the risk that budgets – including education – will be cut during periods of revenue shortfall.

The legislative budget recommendation maintains a full rainy day fund, yet Democrats have cried foul. They claim the LBR stashes away some $622 million in this reserve fund, but that’s just plain wrong. The rainy day fund balance is approximately $393 million, and the remaining unallocated funds will be utilized during the 2015 session for capital projects, education, and other needs.

As we approach 2015, it’s not surprising to see some Democrats attack Republican successes. They’re mad as heck Republicans delivered on their promises to get the state’s fiscal house in order without jeopardizing state priorities.

Consider the following: The Republicans quit spending one-time money. Promise made; promise kept. The Republicans filled the state’s rainy day fund in order to be able to weather unexpected downturns in the economy. Promise made; promise kept. The Republicans even – gasp – increased funding for education! Promise made; promise kept.

Let’s talk about education. For years, Democrats and other like-minded organizations have tried their hardest to make this a wedge issue with voters by making outrageous claims: Republicans hate children. Republicans hate teachers. Republicans hate math and science and rulers and calculators.

Bah-humbug.

Republicans championed and passed a meaningful charter school law to ensure the state’s children have every opportunity to get a quality education. There is only one reason to pass a charter law in any state: To provide more opportunity for children.

Republicans championed and passed a teacher pay raise. By the start of the next fiscal year, every single teacher in Mississippi will be making $3,500 more. As Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves likes to say, Mississippi is “now a leader and not a laggard in teacher pay.”

The Republican-majority budget committee recommended a $32.1 million increase to the Miss. Adequate Education Program, but that’s not all. Legislative leaders have indicated a willingness to increase education spending above this amount when final revenue numbers are determined in the spring.

Over the past three years, the Republican-majority Legislature has increased education spending by a quarter of a billion dollars, or roughly $245 million. These increases have come at a time when many agencies of government haven’t yet seen their budgets rebound from the Great Recession.

That being said, it’s not enough to simply spend more money on education. We must demand results. Too often, the litmus test for support of education is how much money policymakers are willing to spend – with little to no regard of educational outcomes. This is both intellectually dishonest and harmful to those who are working to improve educational quality in a fiscally responsible manner.

In short, Republicans have delivered on their budgetary promises, leading to greater financial stability for the state of Mississippi. As they say, elections have consequences, and voters showed their wisdom by electing budget-minded leaders to office in 2011.

Friday, December 12, 2014

State’s long-term growth stems from STEM

*First appeared in Dec. 11 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

For years, I’ve heard anecdotes about Mississippi having too many elementary education teacher graduates. Yeah, yeah. Too many college-age students want to teach kindergarten or first grade as a profession. So what?

Recent data from the Institutions of Higher Learning puts the issue into perspective.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 1,091 students graduated in a teacher education program within our public university system. Nearly two-thirds of all teacher education graduates earned a degree in elementary education. These statistics reflect similar outcomes from the previous school year (2012-2013) in which a little more than sixty percent of all teacher education graduates majored in elementary education.

Considered as a stand-alone data point, this may not raise your eyebrows. But it should, and here’s why.

In the 2013-2014 school year:

Alcorn State University had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. ASU had one mathematics education graduate.

Delta State University had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and mathematics education. DSU had one biology education graduate.

Jackson State University had one graduate in mathematics education.

Mississippi State University had zero graduates in the field of chemistry education. MSU had five biology education graduates; 14 mathematics education graduates; and one physics education graduate.

Mississippi Valley State University had zero mathematics education graduates and one biology education graduate.

Mississippi University for Women had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. MUW had one physics education graduate.

The University of Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. UM had two biology education graduates and 12 mathematics education graduates.

The University of Southern Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. USM had seven biology education graduates and seven mathematics education graduates.

See a trend? A very small portion of Mississippi’s future teaching crop is choosing STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) subject areas. This is particularly troubling, given that STEM-related fields are among the fastest growing and highest paying sectors in the current and future labor market.

If our children are going to be successful, we’ve got to make sure they have access to quality teachers who can prepare them for the workforce or college. Whichever path they choose, STEM skills will be a vital component to success.

But with graduation numbers like these, is access to STEM education a reality? I’m not sure.

One avenue that might help alleviate these numbers is encouraging more women to pursue teaching careers in STEM areas. According to the OECD, “gender differences are…apparent in young people’s choice of field of study. Engineering, manufacturing and construction are by far the most popular fields of study for boys.” Inversely, the OECD has found that girls are more dispersed among social sciences, business and law, health and welfare, and other services.

According to National Education Association data, Mississippi’s teacher population is overwhelmingly female, with men making up just 17.9 percent of those in the profession.

In fact, the low percentage of male faculty may partially explain why our public universities are graduating so few teachers in STEM areas, given gender biases for specific fields.

The state has an interest in shifting teacher graduates to high-growth fields. It’s a positive move to secure our state’s future growth prospects, since STEM careers don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. But it also helps balance the job search process: Too many elementary education teachers may over-saturate the market, resulting in unemployment for even qualified teachers. On the other hand, I’ve never met an unemployed chemistry education graduate.

To bring this full circle: Teaching is a noble profession, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with elementary education. Except that there are too many college students who pursue teaching careers in that field.

The state’s future is better served by a concentrated push to increase quality teachers in the STEM fields.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why

*First appeared in the Dec. 4, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

‘Tis the season once again for the legislative session. Next month, the 2015 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature will convene. The specific date and time is noon on January 6. That’s precisely 36 days from the time I am writing this column – but who’s counting?

Last year in this space, I gave you a preview of the people, places, politics, and policies of the Capitol. This year I’ll attempt to provide you with more context as we approach the session, a.k.a. the “sesh” to some very cool Capitol workers.

Since I haven’t seen much writing out there about committees, I’ll do my best to introduce you to legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why.

First, a short primer on how committees operate: The head of each chamber (that’s the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate and the Speaker in the House of Representatives) must assign every single bill to a committee. After the bill has been “referred” (as it is called) to a committee, then that bill becomes property of the committee. The committee, controlled by the chairman, must decide what to do with the bill: Bring it up for a vote? Assign it to a subcommittee? Or do nothing and let it die?

After a bill is passed out of committee, it then goes to the full chamber for a vote. Usually, the committee chairman will handle the bill on the floor, explaining what it does and urging the members to vote for it.

As you can see, committee chairmen have a lot of power in the Mississippi Legislature – so if your business takes you before the Legislature, you’d be wise to study up on your chairmen and your committees.

Committees are like mobile apps. If you’ve got an idea for government, or a specific complaint, or want some taxpayer funding, well, there’s a committee for that. You want to change our turkey season? Think: Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Committee. Want to promote downtown development through a state-funded grant? Think: Appropriations Committee. You want Jones County to become its own state? Think again.

The House of Representatives and the State Senate each have their own committees. Some have the same names (both houses have Education Committees, for example), but others have different names. The House manages its finance-related issues through the Ways and Means Committee – which is also known as the “ways to be mean” committee. On the other hand, the Senate handles its finance issues through the aptly named Finance Committee.

I’ll highlight several of the larger committees for your reading pleasure.

Some of my favorite committees are the money committees. Those include: House Appropriations, Senate Appropriations, House Ways and Means, and Senate Finance.

All taxpayer funds appropriated for a specific purpose – such as funding for a state agency – are handled through appropriations committees in each house. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is Rep. Herb Frierson, a Republican from Poplarville. The Senate Appropriations Committee chairman is Sen. Buck Clarke, a Republican from Hollandale. (By the way, Chairman Clarke is sometimes referred to as the “Gentleman Farmer” because of his Delta lineage. It’s one of my favorite nicknames at the Capitol.)

On the House side, this committee meets in Room 201-A; on the Senate side, appropriations meets in Room 216, which is also the old Supreme Court room.

The other big money committees are those that handle finance issues. Whereas appropriations committees handle spending of funds, these committees handle incoming revenues.

The House Ways and Means Committee is chaired by Rep. Jeff Smith, a Republican from Columbus; this group meets in Room 201-B. The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, and it also meets in Room 216. (You’ll notice that South Mississippi fares pretty well in terms of money committee chairmenships.)

The newest committees to be formed are those that look at government reform issues. Both chambers have similar committees called “Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency” which oversee a litany of issues: technology initiatives, good government ideas, pay raises, and many others. These committees serve as a sort of catch-all during the session. I have had the opportunity to work closely with Sen. Nancy Collins, a Republican from Tupelo who chairs the Senate’s AET committee. She’s one of the most reform-minded senators in the Mississippi Legislature – and that’s good news for John Q. Taxpayer.

Energy is a big item for families and, as it turns out, for state government. Both legislative bodies have an energy committee, which oversees issues related to oil and gas and Public Service Commission regulations, among others. My uncle and Jones County native Rep. Gary Staples serves as vice chairman of the House Energy Committee. This is particularly helpful for the Free State, since oil and gas is a big economic driver in the Pine Belt area.

Other committees important to the Pine Belt include those dealing with agriculture, community and junior colleges, education, and county affairs. In fact, Jones County Rep. Bobby Shows serves as Chairman of the House County Affairs committee, which handles local issues dealing with supervisors, county purchases, land transfers, and other issues.

Want a full listing of the various legislative committees? Check out www.legislature.ms.gov.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

An attitude of gratitude can boost personal latitudes

*First appeared in Nov. 26, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

When you read this column, you’ll likely be prepping for your annual Thanksgiving tradition, whether that means driving to your parent’s house for home-style cooking (like me) or cooking for your family (not like me) or something else unique to your situation.

Whatever your annual Turkey Day habits, the shared focus of this holiday is a reminder to be grateful for our many blessings.

Being thankful, it turns out, doesn’t just benefit others; it boosts your own personal health, too.

In 2011, researchers at Harvard reviewed the mental health benefits of gratitude and offered some advice on how to cultivate a thankful state of mind.

For starters, they examined the root of gratitude, which has its origins in Latin. The Latin word “gratia” means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness, depending on the context, and in some ways, “gratitude encompasses all of these meanings.”

Researchers conclude that “with gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves…[helping] people connect to something larger.”

Harvard’s examination of gratefulness included a reference to several psychological studies. One study required one set of subjects to write about things they were grateful had happened, and another set of subjects to write about things that displeased and/or irritated them. The result? Those who wrote about their gratitude were, on average, more optimistic than their testing counterparts. The happy group also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor.

(To be fair to the unhappy group, I too would be grumpy if someone made me spend my days writing about things that irritate me.)

Other studies have been conducted on couples in relationships, finding that couples that display gratitude between partners are generally happier and have more honest, open communication.

Yet another study conducted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that employees felt motivated to work harder after feeling appreciated – that is, after a manager showed gratitude for their efforts.

Studies like these cannot necessarily prove cause and effect, but they do typically support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.

So how do we become more thankful? The Harvard folks advise the following:

Write thank you notes.

Thank someone mentally.

Keep a gratitude journal.

Count your blessings.

Pray.

That seems fairly simple, doesn’t it?

More important than the researchers at Harvard, though, is a divine directive to be thankful. Consider the numerous times when the Bible tells us to have a spirit of gratitude:

Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name; make known His doings among the peoples! (1 Chronicles 16:8)

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 107:1)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)

This Thanksgiving, we can all be thankful there’s no disagreement on what makes us cheerful. Gratitude is, in large part, key to a happy, healthy state of mind.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Someone finally tells the truth about Obamacare, but it’s not pretty

*First appeared in the Nov. 19, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Wonder if Jonathan Gruber regrets adhering to that old adage, “honesty is the best policy?”

You know Gruber. He’s the M.I.T. economist who told the truth about Obamacare, possibly the first supporter of the law to do so.

Here are a few nuggets from his public comments: First, the bill was written in a “tortured way to make sure CBO didn’t score the mandate as taxes,” because if the Congressional Budget Office had done that, the bill would have died. Second, “if you made a law that said healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it wouldn’t have passed, just like lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing passed.”

So why do we care what Jonathan Gruber says about Obamacare? The Washington Post said he played a “central role designing [Obamacare] and shepherding it through Congress” and also convinced the President that “a viable health care reform plan would have to include an individual mandate to buy insurance.” The New York Times has referred to him as “Mr. Mandate.” The Wall Street Journal calls him “an architect of the Affordable Care Act.”

In other words: We can take him at his word when he says the very foundation of the healthcare plan was misleading at best, an outright lie at worst.

In fact, that’s exactly what Ron Fournier (who “openly rooted for Obamacare’s successes”) called this debacle in the National Journal: “I have to admit, as a supporter, that Obamacare was built and sold on a foundation of lies. No way around it.”

Fournier’s not the only detractor – not by a long shot. Tevi Troy writes in the Wall Street Journal: “The all-too-candid MIT economist is not likely to have a hard time paying for his own health care—Mr. Gruber reportedly received $400,000 for advising the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act. But he is having a hard time explaining his unguarded comments about the law. His views may be obnoxious, but Mr. Gruber has performed a public service by finally telling the truth about ObamaCare.”

March Thiessen writes in the Washington Post that the “reason Democrats are running from Gruber is the same reason conservatives should be thanking him: Gruber has exposed what liberals really think of the American people.”

Not so fast, says President Obama. The President explained that Gruber “never worked on our staff.” (Don’t worry about the fact Gruber was paid nearly $400,000 by the Obama administration as noted above, nor the fact that he is the “intellectual author of the individual mandate,” nor the fact that he personally met in the Oval Office with President Obama and head of the Congressional Budget Office to discuss the healthcare legislation.) Even Nancy Pelosi attempted to distance herself, saying she doesn’t know who Gruber is. This seems odd, given that she referenced him personally during her comments in the Obamacare debate.

Top Democrats seem to think rational Americans like you and me will buy their flimsy excuses, will overlook their previous dealings with Gruber, and will rock on like nothing’s happened.

But what do they think we are – stupid?