Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lessons from the matriarch of my American family

*First appeared in the Oct. 15, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper.

This past weekend marked my mom’s XXth birthday. Mom’s birthday got me to thinking about the importance of family and how lucky my brother and I are to have had a great family nest growing up. But not everyone is so lucky, and too often we see the symptoms of that larger societal problem – the breakdown of the American family – in the form of dropout rates, poverty issues, incarceration, teen/out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and so on.

With that in mind, and in honor of my mom’s birthday, I’d like to examine the lessons imparted to me by the matriarch of my American family. Some are silly, some are not – and that itself is a great reflection of my mother.

Lesson #1: “Don’t cross your eyes.”

As a child, I enjoyed making weird faces and crossing my eyes. Mom warned me against this, saying it would have bad consequences (“your eyes will get stuck that way.”). As a four-year old, I climbed on a plank, stood on one leg, and crossed my eyes (imagine a tiny kung-fu fighter in the crane position). At that point, I saw two planks (one real and one not, thanks to my double-vision) and chose the wrong plank to put my foot on. I fell dramatically to the ground, breaking my arm along the way.

No, my eyes “didn’t get stuck that way,” but I did learn my lesson. Adult translation? Actions have consequences.

Lesson #2: “Have personality!”

Gosh, if only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this. Before going to school, before meeting new people, before going into a job interview, her advice was the same. Mom encouraged me to put my best foot forward regardless of the situation. Be engaging, have personality, make a name for yourself – and you’ll go far.

It’s such a simple yet powerful lesson about human nature. We don’t want to be friends with the boring; we don’t want to do business with the dull. We want to hitch our wagons to those who, for lack of a better phrase, “have personality.” Think of this way – when’s the last time you voted for the boring dude at the ballot box? You didn’t.

Lesson #3: “It takes a friend to be a friend.”

This lesson is pretty self-explanatory, but my mom preached it to me incessantly when I was a kid. I suppose she thought I might treat other children like I treated my brother (with a yell and a fist). She told me the secret to having a lot of friends was being one first.

Honestly, I’m still working on incorporating this lesson into life (look, I need alone time – and lots of it). But how many children grow up without hearing this simple piece of advice?

Lesson #4: “Never leave home without fresh clothes, lipstick, and earrings.”

This lesson can also be titled, “Are you really leaving the house looking like that?” Mom believes strongly in looking your best when going out in public, which means matching clothes, brushed hair, “putting on some lips” (neutral shades are forbidden), and earrings.

I’ve taken her advice as it relates to professional activities, but wild hair and pajamas aren’t necessarily off limits in Kroger (sorry, Mom).

Knowing how to dress professionally seems like a basic skill, but it’s not. In the workforce world, this and related traits are known as “soft skills.” Today’s workers have trouble with tasks like knowing how to dress and showing up on time – things my mom taught me at an early age. This soft skills deficit leads to lower productivity and harms our economy.

Lesson #5: “You’re special.”

This has been something of a running joke in my family. I once told my mom that I wasn’t special, and she responded by giving me a teddy bear figurine that said “You’re special.” To this day, my whole family writes “you’re special” on every birthday card and Christmas present I receive.

It’s funny to us now (and I’m pretty sure my brother uses it as a taunt), but it’s a message that every child ought to hear. Children must be told they’re special. They must know someone believes in them and their future. They must be loved, nurtured, and have their dreams encouraged by parents and guardians. My mom and dad made sure that we knew they believed in us and supported our aspirations.

Mom taught me many lessons and continues to introduce new ones. Some of them will stick (like the fiscal responsibility gleaned through bargain shopping); some of them won’t (like cooking). I am thankful to have a mom who, along with my father, chose to raise their children responsibly and impart life lessons that prepared us for the so-called “real world.”

Happy birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fun with fonts

*First appeared in the Oct. 8 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to some interesting news from our neighboring state (the one that has counties, not parishes). It was a story about potential cost-savings achieved by changing the font used in official government mailings. Intriguing, right?

You could say Alabamans are trying to get with the modern times (New Roman).

According to the political website, taxpayers could reap at least $300,000 in annual savings by switching from Times New Roman to Garamond, based on information provided to a state legislator by the Alabama Legislative Fiscal Office.

State senator Slade Blackwell, a Republican, told Yellowhammer that Alabama “would save between 20 percent and 30 percent on ink and toner every year. Taxpayers expect us to be good stewards of their money...This is another great opportunity for us to continue streamlining and downsizing state government.”

The state reports spending about $1.5 million each year through state agency ink and toner contracts, with public higher education institutions spending even more, approximately $3.2 million annually. Switching to Garamond is expected to shave about 25 percent of these costs. More savings could be achieved by including local governing bodies, such as cities and counties.

Sen. Blackwell confirmed to Yellowhammer that he will sponsor legislation in 2015 mandating the use of Garamond for internal printing at agencies, departments, institutions, and other governmental bodies.

According to Yellowhammer, the idea seems to have come from an unlikely source: A sixth-grader conducting a school science project. The Pittsburg, Penn. student found that his school district could save $21,000 by switching fonts. Teachers were so impressed with his project that they encouraged him to send the research to Harvard, which in turn urged him to send the research to the federal government.

Uncle Sam could save about $400 million by adopting Garamond, according to the student. But others say those figures aren’t true, since contracts are often written on a per-page basis, regardless of ink and toner used.

Additionally, there are some very detailed ways in which ink output per font is measured, and experts say Garamond isn’t as legible as Time New Roman when put at the same point font. This means Garamond would have to be printed larger in order to achieve maximum legibility, thus negating any potential cost-savings.

By the way, here is a little background on our dueling fonts. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, British newspaper The Times commissioned a new font in 1931 after criticism the paper was badly printed and typographically antiquated. The result was known as – you guessed it – Times New Roman. Garamond, on the other hand, is a reference to its creator, French publisher and punch-cutter Claude Garamont. Several contemporary fonts, including Granjon and Sabon, reflect his influence.

After writing all of that, I officially feel like a font nerd.

Alabama isn’t the only state looking at fonts. Apparently Missouri is considering a similar bill. Could Mississippi be next?

Only time will tell whether this idea has merit – and if the Magnolia State stands to benefit from this unique approach to printing. In an age of governance where every idea (good or bad) has a political overtone, it’s unusual to stumble upon something as truly apolitical as font style.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The making of the state budget

*First appeared in the October 1, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Most Mississippians don’t follow the legislative budgeting process. It’s a bit wonky and not often described in a relatable way. I’ll try to remedy that in this column by demonstrating how budgeting is a lot like the courting process – the ups and downs, the thrills and chills, and the building of an institution (be it marriage or state government).

There are no storks and no pastel-colored ribbons involved in the making of a state budget, but the process required for smooth budgeting is not entirely dissimilar to the process of making a family.

We’ll start at the beginning: Speed dating. This process occurs each year during the Joint Legislative Budget Committee budget hearings. Instead of a bar, state agencies are herded into a room at the Woolfolk Building where they have about 15 minutes to dazzle the members of the JLBC. Agencies talk about what they like; budget committee members talk about what they don’t like. Then, if the agency is lucky, they’ll get matched. This could be a general agreement among JLBC members that the agency needs a budget increase or simply one legislator who decides to champion their cause.

In fact, budget speed dating began this week. By the time you’re reading this, agencies like the Dept. of Education, Dept. of Corrections, and State Board of Health have already made a pass at next year’s budget. (Don’t worry though – agencies will get their full vetting during the actual legislative session. This is just a warm-up.)

After the weeklong speed dates subside, the JLBC members must reconvene to determine which agency they’d like to take to the dance, a.k.a. the “legislative budget recommendation.” Who will lawmakers invite to dance with them? Will they choose to fund the budget increase requested by certain departments? And so forth. “Priority agencies” always find their way into the legislative budget recommendation, but priority is often in the eye of the beholder, er, lawmaker.

So we’ve done speed dating, and we’ve slow-danced at homecoming. What’s next?

In January, lawmakers officially reconvene to start working on the nuts-and-bolts of a budget. This is the DTR phase – or, “define the relationship” for those of you not keeping track with adolescent lingo.

In defining the relationship, lawmakers will revisit issues again and again and again (sounds like a relationship, doesn’t it?). Why do you need this budget increase? Where are we going with this program? What are your long-term goals? Why can’t we trust your agency? Are you the kind of agency I can take home to mom – or at least to the floor of the Senate?

Making it through the DTR phase is difficult but manageable. And, if your agency is lucky enough to navigate this process, you’ve made it past one of the hardest parts.

Marriage comes next, and that’s when lawmakers of both chambers agree to fund a particular agency or program. Budget leaders of both houses must give the verbal “I do” before a final budget can be adopted.

Yet a marriage (or, in this case, a general agreement) isn’t the final step in this family-making ordeal. This last part is the most mysterious and least understood of budgeting processes. It’s called “conference” and, like the birthing process, it entails a lot of false starts, sweat, a little pain, and ultimately a bundle of joy (a finished budget!).

From budget hearings to conference reports, the budgeting process is arduous, complicated, and altogether wonky. But it determines how your taxpayer dollars are used, and that’s why all of us have an interest in understanding these courtship-like processes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Telehealth can aid rural communities, cut costs

*First appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I had an interesting chat the other day with my friend and colleague who manages the state’s Broadband Connect Coalition, a group whose function includes mapping out ways in which increased broadband can improve the education, government, workforce, and healthcare sectors.

The leaders of the broadband group made a recommendation in 2011 that Mississippi ought to establish a trade association focused solely on health information technology, and the state obliged, albeit slowly. In 2014, the Mississippi Telehealth Association was formally established to develop telehealth policies and programs designed to improve healthcare outcomes.

When I think of telehealth, I envision chatting with a doctor via Skype. Turns out, telehealth encompasses much, much more. The federal government defines telehealth as the “use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”

In our state, the University of Mississippi Medical Center is a leader on telehealth issues. According to UMMC, residents in more than half of Mississippi’s counties must drive 40 minutes (or more) to receive specialty healthcare. This poses a serious challenge to ensuring our residents receive quality healthcare in a timely fashion.

Insert telehealth technologies. They can help bridge the gap for the residents who live in these rural areas (which is funny to say, since we’re a predominantly rural state). For example, UMMC has used online video technology to provide remote medical care, including services such as wellness care and disaster response, to more than 500,000 Mississippians since 2003. Their services include over 30 different medical specialties, such as cardiology, dermatology, emergency medicine, and stroke, and extend to more than 100 clinical sites.

UMMC telehealth services are available in all but six Mississippi counties. According to the Medical Center, Jones County-based telehealth services are provided by South Central Regional Medical Center.

Earlier this year, a first-of-its-kind telehealth partnership was announced by Gov. Phil Bryant. The Diabetes Telehealth Network, a public-private initiative including UMMC, North Sunflower Medical Center, GE Healthcare, Intel-GE Care Innovations, and C-Spire, is providing remote care management to diabetes patients in the Miss. Delta with an eye toward improving outcomes and reducing costs.

In 2010, 12.1 percent of adults in this area reported a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, and 293 died from complications related to the disease. Estimates from the American Diabetes Association put a $2.74 billion price tag on expenses related to diabetes management.

Participants in the Diabetes Telehealth Network will input daily information, such as glucose and blood pressure, onto specialized tablets provided to them through the initiative. This information provides clinicians a “just-in-time” snapshot of patients’ health status, allowing them to easily adjust medical care, schedule phone calls, or set up video chats with patients as needed.

While the program is ongoing and final results are not yet available, this initiative shows great promise in improving access to quality healthcare, particularly in underserved areas like the Mississippi Delta.

Information Week expects the telehealth industry to grow sixfold by 2017, as remote patient monitoring ramps up across the nation. As telehealth increasingly becomes a part of our medical infrastructure, Mississippi must be prepared to meet challenges posed by this new delivery system. Already we know these challenges include licensure issues, such as reciprocity of state licenses, as well as universal standards of practice.

With the right support, these obstacles are surmountable. Political leaders in Mississippi have thrown their weight behind telehealth as a legitimate solution to improving healthcare. Congressman Gregg Harper has been a leader, authoring the Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker have sponsored similar legislation in 2014.

Closer to home, the Miss. Legislature has also taken up the telehealth mantle. A bill passed in the last session requires health insurance providers to cover “store-and-forward” and remote patient monitoring at the same rate as in-person consultations. (Store-and-forward refers to platforms that allow providers to receive consultations from remote physicians on patient tests and scans.)

A study released this week and published in Telemedicine and e-Health shows that over a 14-year period, the use of telemedicine to manage chronic diseases yielded “clear benefits including fewer and shorter hospital stays, fewer emergency room visits, less severe illness, and even fewer deaths.”

With the ability to improve outcomes faster and cheaper, it’s no wonder telehealth is getting the attention of healthcare experts, industry publications, and policymakers.

Provided the technology continues to work as expected and keeps a sharp focus on patient care, telehealth – and all that it encompasses – is good news for Mississippians.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My thoughts on corporal punishment

*First appeared in the Sept. 17 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Adrian Peterson had a bad week. He’s been indicted on charges of child abuse related to whipping his son to the point of bleeding. Peterson, who plays professional football for the Minnesota Vikings, is fighting the charges. He’s told several news outlets that he was disciplined as a child in the same way and “never intended or thought [injury] would happen…I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser.”

Is corporal punishment child abuse? It depends on your perspective – and, in Peterson’s case, both the jury and injury.

According to news reports, parents are allowed in every state to use corporal punishment as a means of discipline, so long as the force is “reasonable.” Mississippi law stipulates that reasonable corporal punishment will not cause serious bodily harm, such as bone fracturing, permanent disfigurement or scarring, internal bleeding or trauma to any organ, brain damage, and impairment of any bodily function.

Roughly 19 states allow corporal punishment within public schools. In Mississippi, teachers and other district personnel may reasonably use “physical force as a means to maintain discipline and enforce school rules for self-protection or for the protection of other students from disruptive students.” It’s up to school districts to decide whether or not to employ this type of punishment.

Back to Peterson. His case will be handled in both a court of law and of public opinion, and that’s the genesis of this column. I don’t care to opine on his specific case (particularly as I don’t know all the details), but I’ve been amazed by the immediate rush to judgment on both sides of the paddle.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on corporal punishment.

The Staples Household believes strongly in corporal punishment. As a child, I was often on the receiving end of this type of discipline. Switches were my mother’s specialty, and she’d even “allow” me to pick out my own. My father offered no such choice. His trusty belt sufficed.

I was whipped so many times that I don’t remember specifics. What I do remember is that the punishment system was rigged in my brother’s favor, as he never got as many whippings as I did. (Perhaps the bigger question, then, is not whether corporal punishment is child abuse, but whether it is evenly distributed among siblings. I’ll volunteer for that case study.)

All joking aside, corporal punishment in my family didn’t do irreparable harm to my brother or me. It didn’t make us violent madmen. It served its purpose quite well: We broke the rules, and we paid the painful price. Did it completely stop us from disobeying? No, but we defied the laws of Papa Sam with a more acute sense of the risks involved.

Because of my upbringing, I don’t raise eyebrows when I hear a child has been whipped for disobedience. That’s just a normal part of childhood, based on the sum of my experiences.

But I don’t agree with those who contend all forms of physical force used on children are “reasonable.” Obviously, if you break a bone or disfigure a face, you’ve gone too far. There are some limits, and parents should be held accountable when they exceed those boundaries.

On the other hand, I don’t agree with the over-reactive group which believes all forms of corporal punishment are abusive. I don’t believe that whipping children (in a reasonable way) is cause for a lifetime of therapy or requires an immediate reporting to childcare services.

Extremists on both sides irritate me. I’m not a parent, and I’m not advocating for either child-rearing strategy. It’s up to each family to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Sure, I’ve got my biases. I grew up thinking most of the kids who didn’t get spanked were brats, and most of the parents who didn’t spank their kids were pushovers. I also got exposed to irony at a much earlier age than the non-spanked kids who never heard their parents claim, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

However the Peterson case pans out, I hope we’ll remember that Adrian Peterson’s parenting strategy is not a bellwether for corporal punishment in America.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Paying my last respect to Terry Brown

*First appeared in the Sept. 10, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

My friend Sen. Terry Brown passed away last week after a brief but intense battle with lung cancer. Doubtful many people in the Jones County area know Sen. Brown, but his life – and legislative legacy – is one worth knowing. I hope to pay him one last respect by sharing a few memories.

It’s hard for me to imagine a legislative session without Sen. Brown – Terry, as he was known. His bass voice booming through the hallways, Terry wasn’t one for quiet entrances. As a wide-eyed teenager, I didn’t know what to think about him when we first met several years ago. Is this guy crazy? Does he always yell? Can he really help steer legislation through committee?

The answer, I soon learned, was yes. He was in fact a little crazy (and proud of it, you see); he always shouted (Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says Terry never had an “inside voice”); and his ability to garner support for legislation was virtually unmatched.

He was one-of-a-kind in every sense of the phrase.

Terry represented Lowndes County in the Legislature, serving most recently as the Miss. Senate’s unanimous choice for President Pro Tempore, which is a Latin term that basically means he was second in command. Prior to the Senate, Terry served in the Miss. House from 1988 to 2000.

I got to work with Terry when he was chairman of the old Fees, Salaries, and Administration Committee (it’s been reconstituted as the Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency Committee). Terry’s committee oversaw bills that would remove agencies from the regulations of the State Personnel Board, which Gov. Barbour thought – and Terry agreed – would help streamline government.

Terry would make sure this bill passed his committee and the full Senate floor, only to watch it die in the then-Democrat majority House of Representatives – year after year after year. No matter, though, because he thought it was the right thing to do. Let’s shove it in their face, he would say. Let’s make them answer questions as to why they don’t want to save taxpayer dollars.

Terry could be abrasive, that’s for sure. But his brusque nature was rather endearing once you got to know him. On more than one occasion did I hear someone exclaim: That senator just cussed me! On more than one occasion did I hear the response: Who, that giant fellow over there? Yeah, that’s Terry. I think it means he likes you.

Terry liked to give people nicknames. For coastal residents, the nickname was simply “fish-eaters.” The nickname caught on, and now several coastal residents (particularly legislators) refer to themselves as “fish-eaters.”

Terry referred to me as “nerd.” Everything I did was prefaced by “nerd”: Nerd reading, nerd walking, etc. Everything I used was a nerd utensil: Nerd pencil, nerd pen, and, my personal favorite, nerd canister (this was in reference to a water bottle I used).

He called the shots just as he saw them, and he was usually right.

Politics were important to Terry, and he was as conservative as they come. Yet his jovial nature and unique sense of humor endeared him to his legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His funeral was attended by as many Democrats as Republicans – one last testament to the bipartisan nature of his engaging personality.

Gov. Barbour told the Clarion Ledger that he knew Terry since the Fordice administration, that he was one of his most faithful supporters, and that Terry supported him even in times “when maybe his own inclination was not the same as mine.”

Terry was one of the most loyal people I knew. He was loyal to Gov. Barbour, loyal to Lt. Gov. Reeves, loyal to friends, and most of all, loyal to his constituents back home. He’s a big reason why Columbus has had so much economic development success in recent years, including major employers like PACCAR, Airbus, and Severstal.

One of my favorite stories about Terry was told during his funeral. Lt. Gov. Reeves recalled that Terry helped him on the campaign trail several years ago. One day they were speaking at a Republican women’s club, and Terry introduce the candidate as follows:

“Now listen here. They made a mistake in letting you women vote, but as long as you’re going to vote, I hope you’ll pick my man Tate Reeves for Treasurer.”

It reminds me of what Gov. Barbour said: Terry could be “so impolitic, but was always fun and funny. And if he thought of something and it was politically incorrect, he didn’t let that stop him from expressing it.”

Terry was a skilled legislator who was respected by his peers in both legislative chambers. He made friends easily, was liked by all, and was an institution unto himself.

Terry’s legislative seat will be filled and his position in the Senate will be taken. But Terry Brown – the man, the legislative legend, the legacy – will never be replaced.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A few positives in a sea of negativity

*First appeared in the Laurel Chronicle newspaper on September 3, 2014

It’s hard to watch the news without observing a local tragedy, an international crisis or, as of late, both. The constant barrage of negativity does a number to my psyche and, I imagine, yours. The world’s on fire, they say, and we’re starting to believe them.

More often than not, the steady stream of bad news is a byproduct of the phenomenon of 24-hours news coverage. Frantic car chase in a city 500 miles from you? Stay tuned; we have details on the suspect’s sweater vest. Infectious virus located on an isolated island? Stay tuned; we’ll give you thirteen ways your neighbor may be infected.

I don’t often watch the talking heads, but only because I doubt I’ll hear news that isn’t designed to push a certain agenda. (If left unchecked, my cynicism gets the best of me.)

But cynics aren’t part of the solution to any problems. The endless news cycles may drown us in information, but at least we’re (probably) more informed at the end of the reports. An informed citizenry is a powerful one, so in some ways keeping up with the goings-on of local, national, and international events is a civic responsibility.

That being said, today I have no desire to impart with you any snotty political jokes, no tales of tragedy, no problem to analyze. I’ll simply remind you about a few positive things happening in the Magnolia State. This is what you might call a classic “feel good” piece.

Last week, it was reported that Mississippi women fared pretty doggone well in a new study on women’s equality. WalletHub found that 25 percent more women hold a bachelor’s degree, making us the state with the highest education gap tilted toward women. In our state, women tend to live, on average, about 20 percent longer than men, which is another piece of good news (for half of us, anyway).

Mississippi’s ranking on the “education and health” component was top of the nation. That’s great news, ladies.

A Gallup poll measuring well-being recently found that Mississippi was among the top eleven states that had made the steadiest improvement in this area since 2010, when the recession officially ended. Gallup measured things like emotional health, work environment, and life evaluation. In other words, we’re happier.

The Tax Foundation observed in a recent study that the real value of $100 in Mississippi, where we enjoy lower cost-of-living than elsewhere, is about $115. This means we can buy more stuff with a Benjamin than those unfortunate dwellers of other states. Wonder if those Labor Day sales are still ongoing?

Good news isn’t just at the statewide level; in fact, Jones County had its own flavor of a positive (and historic) event last week. The South Jones Braves football team saw its female field goal kicker, Mary Kate Smith, perform flawlessly in her first game with the team. Even this former Northeast Jones Tiger thinks that’s pretty cool.

Speaking of tigers, I’m reminded of the baby boom going on at the Jackson Zoo. In 2014 alone, the zoo has welcomed a new Sumatran tiger cub, a baby springbok (similar to a gazelle); a beaver kit; red wolf cubs; red river hog piglets; and even a baby orangutan.

There’s nothing more feel good than the birth of baby animals, so I had to throw that in there, guys. Come on. No laughing.

Is this column a bit silly? For sure. But perhaps it will give you something positive to think on next time you watch a missile soar across the cable television.